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What makes a character one that you want to play?
I love—I feel comfortable—playing characters that I feel like are misguided, insecure, neurotic, and are on a journey of perverse self-exploration where they want to become better, more well-adjusted people, but the search is torture and difficult and humorous to watch. That's what turns me on as an actor in terms of comedic roles and that's what I would like to play if I were to cast myself in future films.
Your character in Red Flag fits that description so perfectly. And I love that it's a road trip movie, which always lend themselves to journeys that are both exterior and interior. What was the filming like? How did you decide where to go?
So, Red Flag is my fifth movie. My second movie is a movie called Woodpecker which I made a few years ago and it played SXSW and it kind of faded away. But last year this organization invited it to be part of this tour where you show movies across the South. So Red Flag is a story about a filmmaker on tour with an earlier film, so we had to stick to the itinerary of the Woodpecker tour. All the Q & A venues and all the motels were part of the tour. The motels were assigned to us and we rolled with it documentary style. It started in North Carolina and we went west to Louisiana.
How much of it is reflective of real experiences that you had? When you're willing to give your name to something, what is your process for that, what kind of character does it need to be?
Well, it's an interesting question. I'd never been on a film tour before, and we were shooting while I was on it. So I couldn't really draw on anything and I've never had a groupie follow me. [Me: Well, to this point.] Right, well, it wasn't autobiographical at this point. In terms of the character, I definitely have commitment phobia to a large extent and that applies not only to relationships but also to living situations—I sublet a lot, I don't have my own place—and even what projects I work on. It reverberates in several aspects of my life and I did feel at one point in my life, and to some extent I still do, that a lot of these everyday concerns and fears-issues-have an underlying primary root from which they all spew and I think to a large extent that primary root is a death anxiety. It's sort of an uncomfortable and awkward negotiation with your own mortality. And I think we all—that's what happens in Red Flag, the guy has an epiphany moment, where he realizes the underlying roots of his fear of commitment and that hopefully will open some sort of door for him to self-discovery which in turn will lead to some sort of paradigm shift.
But I think about death all the time. [Me: Well, how could you not? You're intelligent. What else is there to think about?] Well, but if I was really intelligent, I would shut it down. I would shut down that thought process, but I can't. [Me: Do you know people who can do that? Is that kind of intelligence something anyone possesses?] Well, it's not one that I possess. [Me: Is that desirable though? Once you accept death, isn't that all there's left to do? Just die?] Well, or you could be liberated by it and not take everything so seriously. You won't fixate on things. We have this immortality deception mechanism of delusion, of self-delusion, that allows us to be sane. And it's a lubricant that allows us to exist in a semi-healthy way in our day to day lives, but, it's an illusion. I think we're all telling ourselves that we're going to live forever to deal with the uncomfortable reality of our imminent death. And I think that there's always a point in our life when that immortality deception mechanism breaks down, whether it's because of stress or nervous exhaustion or life trauma or psychotropic drugs or whatever it is at one point this mechanism breaks down and it can be paralyzing or it can be illuminating or it can be an interplay of both of those things.
[Ed. note: Talking about death and psychotropic drugs and the constant awareness of our own mortalities makes for a very poor segue into discussing the wildly successful HBO series Girls upon which Karpovsky is the complicated, acerbically funny, and pathos-filled Ray Ploshansky. So I didn't make a good segue. I jumped right in.]
How do you like acting on TV? Is it a medium you thought you'd find yourself on? And, more specifically, on a show that has become one of the most-talked about cultural phenomena to ever come out of New York?
No. This might sound hopelessly arrogant and pretentious, but I never think about myself in the future. There's probably some reason why, some defense mechanism or some defense of something going on, but I've never analyzed it. I probably should think about stuff like that though, it'd probably help me solidify ambition. Anyway. No, I never thought about this. It's a huge surprise, a lovely surprise that it happened. I didn't think it was going to last. Not because I didn't believe in it. I totally believed in it and I totally believed in Lena but I just thought it was so narrow and specific that I didn't think it had the ability to get mass appeal. And fortunately I was very wrong.
Before, when you were describing the characters that you write for yourself, it also seemed like you were describing Ray. He's developed in such a fascinating and honest way over the course of the show. What don't we know about him? Why is he the way he is?
In season 1, we saw Ray as this cynical and judgmental and angry person, and in season 2 we really started to explore his backstory—his emotional underpinnings—to some extent and we're getting to understand an idea of from where these judgments and this cynicsim and this skepticism comes from and it's kind of dark. It's kind of a dark place that hasn't allowed him to hold a long term relationship for a long time and it doesn't allow him to live in a real place—he lives in his Mitsubishi—and it doesn't allow him to pursue his ambitions, which I know are greater than working at Grumpy. So all those things are further probed and explored for the rest of season 2, and we'll get to understand much better why Ray is who he is and how that affects where he goes and what he does.
Red Flag and Rubberneck open Friday, February 22 at the Eleanor Bunim Monroe Film Center
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen