After six seasons of Q-tip torture, accidental crack smoking, and lousy hookups, GIRLS only has five episodes left until Hannah Horvath gives up being a voice of a generation. For many viewers who were infuriated by the characters' stumbles along the way to adulthood, only one has consistently stood out as unambiguously likable and sympathetic: beloved curmudgeon Ray Ploshansky. In season six, he's gone through his own crisis as his mentor Hermie died and his relationship with Marnie finally—blessedly—came to a merciful end. We sat down with actor Alex Karpovsky to talk about the evolution of the character, look back on the controversies surrounding the show, and imagine Ray's future after the finale.
I wanted to start by discussing the Hermie storyline, because I was quite moved by it—especially your last scene in the latest episode ("Gummies") where you're listening to his interview tapes. There's a certain serenity there that I haven't seen from almost anybody on the show at any point yet. It almost felt like it could've been a last scene for your character, even though I'm sure you're going to come back again before the end. How do you think Ray has progressed from where the show started? Yeah, I think the serenity—which I think you're right, we don't see a lot of that on the show—could be the calm before the storm. I think he's digesting a lot of stuff, a lot of big life existential stuff.
I think Hermie's death put a lot of stuff into perspective for him: life is short, take advantage of it, and stop frittering your time away. Stop being in relationships that are unfulfilling. Stop spending all your time and emotional energy in a job that isn't really going to lead anywhere. Do things that mean something to you. And as simple as that sounds, I think it's something that Ray lost sight of, and I think the death of Hermie kind of injected him with a lot of perspective in that regard. Seeing him go through the tapes is just the beginning of that negotiation with him to say, "Hey, I need to resolve myself to make some pivots."
The conversation he was listening to almost seemed like this keystone for understanding the perspective of the show. To say, "Don't let the garbage get to you." I've read that a lot of the storyline was inspired by the death of Judd's mentor, Garry Shandling. Did you talk to him much about that? Did you know Shandling? I never met Garry Shandling but I talked to Judd about his relationship with Garry a little bit. Obviously Garry had a huge influence on Judd, and it's important for Judd to keep the legacy of Garry Shandling alive to some degree. He's working on a documentary about Garry.
I think there's some similarities between Ray and Hermie. Hermie meant so much to Ray. He was such a mentor and a guiding influence and I think the tapes that Ray begins to spend time with is Ray's own way of trying to keep Hermie's legacy or voice alive to some degree, as a testament to their friendship, as a celebration of their friendship, but also as a way for Ray to re-embrace things that are fulfilling and artistically rewarding for him. I think that's what we kind of get into in the upcoming episodes.
Have you had experiences like this, which have caused epiphanies in your life, that you drew upon? Sure. I've had people close to me pass away unexpectedly. That's always something that gives you perspective on things. Accidents, whether they're like traffic accidents or stuff like that. I've been burgled a few times. I got burgled four days ago— well, they just broke into my car. But little things like that make you realize that you shouldn't take anything for granted. I mean tons of career stuff, like it's you and this other person to get this role and it goes to someone else. Or like when I was told I could direct an episode of the show. That was a great moment for me, and it immediately just puts everything else into a slightly different light. So things like that happen all the time.
Was that "Love Stories"? That was one of my favorites of the fifth season. Yup. Thank you.
Do you find that those changes have stuck? Um, sometimes I guess is the short answer. I've gotten into this habit over the past few years of taking gratuity walks. As silly as that might sound, they do help me. So every two weeks I'll just go on like an hour long walk and I'll try to make a small inventory of things that I appreciate, and realize that I forget how much I appreciate what I have. So it's basically for me not to take things for granted. And they range from things like my health to my freedoms to my parents. Going on those walks helps things stick.
That almost—if you used slightly more heightened language—sounds like something Marnie would promote. Yeah, absolutely. That's why I'm a little embarrassed talking about it.
But it's like a more grounded version of it. And you're really following through on it. Yeah. I'm not doing it to brag about it, unlike Marnie. In fact, I only mention it when people kind of steer a conversation in that direction. It's not like some "life hack" or something that you might've overheard on a podcast. It's something that I think is actually making me very slowly a more mature person.
Looking back over the course of the show and the way that the character was developed, how much of Ray was influenced by your own personality? Did you try to steer his character arc at all? I didn't try to interject too much. I try to understand what the writers wanted and execute as best I thought I could. I think it was helpful to have kind of references and influences. I think there's no bigger reference to me for the Ray character than my past self. When I think of Ray I do often think of who I was 10 or 12 years ago. I was a much more judgmental and cynical person. I had much more unresolved anger, was much more existentially disorientated. I kind of try to think about that period of my life and put those personality traits into high-relief, amplify them, or make a caricature of that person for comedic effect.
I have a pretty shoddy memory, probably based on the countless bong hits that I've endured over my life. So I try to supplement it with like jpegs, and I found early on, somewhere in the middle of season one, is that emails really help. So going into my emails from like 10 or 12 years ago, the whole human tragedy is in the inbox, at least for me. So I only need to read like three lines of the email and I very viscerally remember what I thought and felt at that time in my life. And if there's specific scenes that Ray is going through, I'll go to the inbox and create date parameters and enter keywords. So like if he's going out to scream at honking cars, I will, with date parameters, say "rage," "fury," "I'm sorry," "please don't involve attorneys," "please accept this gift," whatever it is.
That honking stuff was pretty fun little storyline. Did you experience something like that in real life as well? No, but I've always been kind of a fragile flower with noise and pollution and stuff like that. My least favorite sound in the world is a truck backing up, followed by a honk. Because most of the time those sounds are completely unnecessary. There's no one behind the truck, and the honking isn't going to get you down the block faster. You're just expressing an inner rage in a very public way. When people take personal stuff into a public forum, it drives me fucking crazy.
What you were saying before about drawing upon your experiences as a slightly less-formed man is also something that all the titular GIRLS—[I point at the giant season six poster for GIRLS hanging up behind Karpovsky]—all the girls I'm looking at behind you, I almost feel like they're judging me right now... Me too, looking over my shoulder
Really steely-eyed gazes. Anyway, it feels like that is one of the best things that the show does, and I think it's something that's been misunderstood by a lot of people. There's a lot of people who just assume that these characters are who these actors are. Whereas I've always seen it as there being this distance there, this very clear, ironic distance, and that they're critiquing (and perhaps channeling) their past selves in different ways. So over the course of the show, why do you think there was so much hostility thrown at the show, and at Lena in particular? What do you think that people misunderstood? Yeah that's an interesting question. I think people didn't understand that Lena was interested in making a show about flawed people. We're not there to worship these characters on TV. I think maybe a lot of shows were doing that at the time and maybe that created the foundation for misunderstanding. But these are very shallow, immature, myopic people. These four girls, and my character too, when you live that type of scared, sheltered life, you're going to not only make a lot of mistakes, but you're also going to create walls around you and not surround yourself with other types of experiences and people.
So when people say like well, where are the minorities, my response is like, "Yeah, where are they?" These people are lame in some ways, they wouldn't open themselves up to different types of people or experiences or whatever. That's part of their flaw and that's part of their shortcoming, and that's part of what the show is about—hopefully learning from your mistakes and becoming more mature and becoming more open to your surroundings. These are very closed people, initially. They're deep in the epicenter of the bubble. And so they're hopefully changing that over the course of the years. I think that was maybe something, just to kind of double-click it for a second, I think that maybe because the tone of the show was so "raw and gritty" in quotes, and it was important for Lena to tonally tell her stories that was really tethered to reality, I think people thought that these characters must be real too, kind of like what you were saying. But that's not the case. You can make a show that's really grounded with characters that are fictitious. It sounds very easy to say but I it did create a lot of false expectations early on.
It seems to have subsided somewhat as the years have gone on. And maybe that's the result of... you keep the audience you want and lose the audience that you don't really need or who can't get on board. But I think it's interesting to talk about, like why this show? Why not Friends, which came before us? Like where are minorities there? Or why not Seinfeld? All these billions of shows that were on that didn't have minorities. A lot of media chose to focus on our show, and I think the reasons for it are very interesting and they shouldn't be dismissed. In my opinion, it's because of the tone of the show. Friends is deep, deep in the sitcom world. We know we're in some weird cloud when we watch that show.
It's a little removed from reality, to put it mildly. Yeah, we're in like TV fantasy land. The expectation of storylines and characters and character friendships are different when you make a show—in my opinion, all of this is my opinion—then when you make a show that's tonally more gritty and grounded.
I think that there's something to be said that the cultural conversation in general has been elevated, especially about television, then it was 20 or 30 years ago, and GIRLS happened to come out when it was really bursting open. And isn't that wonderful that we came along when this conversation was being elevated. Maybe we even helped elevated it be one notch. That would be nice to think.
I would definitely say that it was, even with all the vitriol that came forward. It was still to the show's credit that people were taking it very, very seriously, and that they were considering it with the same seriousness that they would consider The Sopranos. I think you're right.
Speaking of stupid mistakes and everything, the Ray and Marnie relationship—why do you think that lasted as long as it did? And where did it come from? I think they're two scared and somewhat cowardly people who are afraid of making a mistake, afraid of future regret. I think Ray sees someone who he can never get, and there's some sort of low self-esteem thing that brings him toward Marnie and maybe keeps him there way too long than he should be there. As for Marnie, I think she wants someone who's not Desi, someone who is sort of diametrically opposed to him. Someone who is sweet, attentive, caring, and relatively stable. But you know, Ray's got his own messed up problems, which she's not that interested in. She's not that attracted to him, they don't have much in common. So I think the reason why they keep staying together is just because of cowardice and the inertia that that brings.
The chemistry between Ray and Shoshanna over recent seasons—really, since they broke up—has kind of gone through the roof. I wrote a recap of the latest episode, and I realized that in terms of the endgame of the show, Ray and Shoshanna's relationship is the only one that I'm invested in romantically. I guess we can't talk quite yet about the very end, but do you have a vision for Ray's destiny, about where he goes next? I think, like some of the other characters in the show, that he is basically putting a lot of the pieces together toward the last leg, the last few episodes. I think he's realizing that he can't sweep stuff under the rug, that he needs to really assess just how adrift he is. And not only that, but to really make changes to better himself, to be in a position where he can nurture more fulfilling relationships, where he is more creative expression in his life, where he's not mired by things that are lame or unimportant or exhausting for him. So in terms of his destiny, we really leave him on kind of an uplifting note down the road.
Could you see him as New York City's first socialist mayor?[Laughs] That'd be fun. I do sometimes catch myself thinking like, "Where would he be in 10 years?" I do like the political side of Ray's character.
Is he still on the City Council? There's a line that Hermie says that suggests he quit it. But in 10 years from now I would like him to sort of reclaim his political interests. Also, Ray as a person who gets frustrated really easily, I don't know if that's going to go away anytime soon. I could see that being the case 10 years from now, I think he'd be frustrated by how partisan politics is, how nasty the climate is. So I could see him raising some funds, getting some people together, purchasing some sort of a floating barge, going out, dropping an anchor in international waters and just experimenting with weird forms of utopia. But you know, that's the thing with Ray—he's trying to do good things but in a way that's really kind of tortured and confused. Like he's trying to create a utopia out there, but the barge is slowly slipping into the ocean.
It's funny that for a show that is so inherently political, there's been almost no mention of Trump or the current political situation that is happening. And I would think that the characters would have strong opinions about this. Yeah, I would too. But we shot the final show before Trump, before the election, I think we wrapped it in August or September. But you're right, because Lena wants to capture what people are thinking or feeling in today's Brooklyn, and there's no one that's not talking about Trump. So I feel that if we went another season there's no way that Trump would've been avoided.
Do you have any other projects in the works right now? You know I've made some movies before GIRLS and I'd like to go back to that and work on my own stuff and see if I could put something together.
Do you feel like you have a bigger platform now because of the experience and exposure of GIRLS? I'm not sure. I haven't really tested it out. I'd like to think that I could maybe bring in some actors that I couldn't have brought in when I was making movies for $6,000 with Best Buy materials. So hopefully there are fans of the show that are talented actors that I can maybe bring in based on that.
Do you have any favorite memories looking back on making the show? I remember the very last thing that we shot in season one was me chasing Shoshanna around during her crack thing. We shot a little bit out of order, but that was the last photography we did. It was like four in the morning in Bushwick, and we all cracked open beers and celebrated wrapping the show. The show hadn't aired of course, so we had no idea if anyone would watch it or anything. But I remember Lena coming up to me and saying how happy she was that we were able to go from Tiny Furniture to this, and then she also said that if we're lucky enough to go to season two, I'd love for you to be a regular. I was a recurring before that. And that was just so sweet and touching to me. I remember that moment.
Didn't do you have a band in the first season? Yeah, Questionable Goods, I think it's called. We played one song where Charlie read Marnie's diary and we did another song at that Crack-ccident episode at the Brooklyn loft party, but I don't remember those songs. I played a theremin I remember at one of those sets.
Can you really play a theremin? No. Well I think anyone can really play a theremin. I haven't picked it up yet though.
Lastly: you ever wish you had your own action figure, like Adam Driver? Uh, no.