In Alex Karpovsky’s Red Flag, a filmmaker, played by Karpovsky, goes on the road to promote his film. This involves variously peculiar audience Q&A’s, one of which yields a highly awkward traveling companionship; another, near the movie’s end, when Karpovsky’s character’s personal life has almost completely melted down, leaves him rumpled and rambling to a classroom full of impassive college students about how we’re all doomed to repeat our mistakes. Karpovsky’s vision of the peripatetic filmmaker’s life is hilariously bleak. So is he thrilled to be a special guest at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where Red Flag will be shown along with a commemorative clip reel of his other work?
“Absolutely,” Karpovsky says on the phone from New York, where he’s shooting new episodes of Lena Dunham’s Girls, resuming the acerbic supporting role for which he’s best known. “I’m really excited to be coming out there with the movie. I love audience Q&As.” Red Flag is one of the two films Karpovsky wrote, directed, produced, and starred in last year. (The other, Rubberneck, is a thriller, not a comedy, but also bleak.) He seems to be having a moment, taking full command of his career.
“When I was growing up I wanted to be a scientist,” Karpovsky says. “My dad is a scientist. I thought it was going to be a comfortable life. And I went to grad school in England at Oxford. There was an environment there where it’s really easy to act and perform. Any old schmuck could give it a go. And I was one such schmuck.”
Karpovsky is Jewish, but “it’s not something that I think too much about,” on account of his Russian immigrant parents mostly having left their traditions behind. “I know I look very Jewish, and often when I’m cast it’s because I look very Jewish. I don’t have a problem with it, but it’s hard not to notice.” Certainly that was true for his role in the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, during whose production Karpovsky, a lifelong Coens fan, had to work very hard to focus on his character, “not the 30 years of worship.”
Karpovsky has said that as a young man he wanted to be the next Andy Kaufman. Since getting into movies and TV, others have suggested he might be the next Woody Allen. Is that a demotion, or a lucky break?
“I’m not choosing the clips,” Karpovsky says of the festival’s planned retrospective, which will likely pull from his own films, Girls, and Dunham’s movie Tiny Furniture. “I don’t know what the criteria are. I’m interested to find out. As a man who’s always drifting in and out of existential crisis, and not really knowing who he is, it will be nice to see what clips other people think are defining. As a narcissist, I’m really flattered that people ask me to share all my movies with them. I like talking to people about my work. I like talking about myself.”