Alex Karpovsky

Generation Lost…or Found?

Air Date: March 14, 2015

Karpovsky considers whether information overload has deprived young Americans of meaning.

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The HBO Series “GIRLS” captivates young and old alike with its unflinchingly honest portrait of the generation who came of age during the tech boom’s social upheaval, the 9/11 attacks, a Great Recession…and the resulting economic realities.

A talented actor, director and screenwriter, our guest today is Alex Karpovsky who plays the intellectual pulse of HBO show but whose character nevertheless has succumbed to economic malaise or perhaps to some degree complacency … a coffee-barista-turned-manager who failed to realize his academic dreams.

In one scene of “Girls”, Alex Karpovsky’s character implores his Millennial counterpart to “Turn [her] potential energy into kinetic energy. [To] stop being a cartographer and become an explorer.” For these words speak to a larger frustration that the American dream is slipping away from too many young people today.

In another “Girls” episode, he says to a friend: “You and I…we’re not actually so different. I may intellectualize everything and you nothing…but at the end of the day we both get to the same meaty ideas. Maybe it’s ‘cause we’re both honest men.”

So I’m going to ask Alex today to be as honest as his fictional persona when I ask him now if his and the generation “Girls” depicts is lost…or finding meaning anew?

KARPOVSKY: Wow, what a great question. Well, there’s … I think there’s many ways to impact that. I think one of the reasons why people … the people who like the show, I think the reason why they like it and why they find meaning in it and why the connect to it is because they feel like it’s more reflective of the reality around them than other shows on TV.

Ahemm, and it does it in a way hopefully that’s also funny and moving and dramatic at times as well. So I feel the fact that it’s sort of tethered to an authenticity and to a naturalism that they don’t find necessarily in a lot of other places, or at least in a lot of places that explore their own demographic … is one of the reasons why they find a specific type of unique and personal meaning in the show. That’s how I feel.

HEFFNER: Authenticity.

KARPOVSKY: Yeah, authenticity, naturalism, believability … yeah.

HEFFNER: You said to Esquire magazine “I think a lot of people relate to “Girls” directly or it’s an anthropological thing … it’s like going to the zoo and seeing the lion cage and being enticed by this different reality. And so it’s had this uniquely inter-generational appeal, hasn’t it?

KARPOVSKY: I hope so. I mean I hope because we’re trying to sort of depict these people’s lives in a way that’s authentic … to, to a large degree authentic and realistic. I hope people find it … I mean I … first I hope it’s different than other viewing experiences on television because of that … first and foremost.

And I hope that people who are in Wyoming and may not know New York very well and may be a generation or two older … I hope they kind of see a depiction … in a sort of embrace of this generation in a way that is not familiar to them. And maybe in a way that they feel is more grounded in something that’s actually plausible. Maybe based on their past and maybe what they see through, through news or whatever might be.

Not everyone on the show is a model, not everything is airbrushed. Not Evans apartment is perfectly, you know, poppy and, you know, full of sparkle. I think it’s something that’s a little bit more gritty and reflective of how people really live today in New York, especially in their 20s and 30s and I think, I think people who do like the show … like I said earlier … like it for those reasons.

HEFFNER: So how do young people live today in New York City?

KARPOVSKY: Well, it’s a struggle in many ways to live in New York. I have a very deep rooted love/hate relationship with New York. I’ve been here for 15 years or so and there’s, you know, a lot of stuff that I love … the energy, the vibrancy, the intellectual vigor, the challenges … incredible circle of friends … the ambition that you’re enveloped in … but financially, it’s real tough and it’s getting tougher and tougher and it’s becoming an increasingly a hard place to anchor down as an artist.

Especially young artists finding their way where you’re not necessarily making a lot of money. A lot of people are … there is sort of an exodus from New York … for that specific reason.

So, to answer your question I think it’s increasingly hard for young people. And maybe this new Mayor will make a change, maybe it’s just sort of the trend of the country and there’s nothing to, to really do about it. But it’s a shame that I feel like sort of a, a place that’s really, as a magnet … as a way to really reduce people from around the world, I think it’s losing some of that. Because it’s so hard for young people to really just be financially independent here.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s talk about that economic connection, because I wonder in the reactions you hear to “Girls” and people who view the program. Do those reactions range based more on geography than age? I mean based on socio-economic status and geography than age?

KARPOVSKY: I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t really read too much about the show …

HEFFNER: MmmmHmmm.

KARPOVSKY: … because I don’t want to over-think the … or whatever. And when, when people do sort of approach me and talk to me about the show, it’s usually only to say nice things. I think if someone has seen the show and it’s not for them, they usually just don’t come up to me …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

KARPOVSKY: … so I’m only getting one side of information. So, I can’t really make a cross-comparative analysis in that respect.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm. Well, I ask you because … not that the show reeks of elitism at all and I haven’t really heard that criticism expressed. But the program has been more intellectualized in the social or sexual realm and less so in terms of the economic experience of your character … of Ray … for viewers who are not familiar with the program … it soon will begin a third or fourth season, I should say, right …

KARPOVSKY: MmmHmm, MmmmHmmm

HEFFNER: You’re already finished with the third. But paint the picture of where it started and how it’s evolved.

KARPOVSKY: Where what specifically started? It’s …

HEFFNER: Well, where the, the concept of the generational imprint of “Girls” started. And, and where you see it going. Maybe for folks who have not seen the show yet … you know the evolution of the idea of this program. And in particular your own reflections from participating in it.

KARPOVSKY: Well, I think it started as a way to explore the lives of four young women who are in their early to mid-twenties, recently out of college or recently sort of assuming some notion of independence in New York at the foothills of modern metropolitan femalehood.

And it explores the very realistic blunders that they make, the alliances that they try to form … the misguided stabs at ambition that they embark upon in a way that hopefully is much more naturalistic and believable and funny than other shows that we may have seen exploring this specific demographic.

And I think it stayed very true and has continued to stay very true to that particular endeavor. I think we’re still hopefully true to these characters’ lives. Hopefully they’re making the same amount of mistakes … I think they’re making a lot more mistakes … more and amore embarrassing mistakes.

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

KARPOVSKY: But I think as they get older they’re slowly starting to learn from their mistakes and they’re starting to make adjustments and that’s part of … sort of … growing up and I think it’s really fun … that’s one really fun thing about episodic space … you can stay with characters for four or five or six years, if you’re lucky, and really see how they transform or how stubborn they choose to be.

And, you know, we made this movie “Tiny Furniture” Lena made this movie that I acted in and it was really fun. But, you know, it’s locked in this 90 minute window and I would love to see where that character that she had … Aura … her name is Aura … I’m not getting spiritual. Where that character would go, you know, in four or five years.

And we can do that with Hannah, we can do that with all these characters. And its really, really fun, because the shows are character driven, it’s not really plot or story driven, I mean, it’s much more about the characters and the vibrancies of their interactions and relationships to sort of see how they unfold and all the perverse sort of distortions that happen within relationships and how that changes over time. It’s really fun.

HEFFNER: Let’s talk about the aspiration or aspirations of your character … ah, Ray Ploshansky … right?

KARPOVSKY: The character’s called Ray Ploshansky … but initially was called Karpovsky, which is my real name and that was the only sort of note I gave Lena a gentle request, can we change the name?

HEFFNER: Ahaa.

KARPOVSKY: Because although I think they … we have a lot in common I … we also have a lot of differences. I hope anyway I have a lot of differences with my character.

What I share in common with him is a cynicism at times, a lack of … a distaste for a lot of sort of hipster culture. A lot of this sort of a blind embrace of irony. A lot of stuff like that drives him kind of crazy. I tried not to swear and I succeeded.

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

KARPOVSKY: It drives him crazy and it sort of gets on my nerves, too. But, you know, I think … I hope I’m … I kind of sometimes think of Ray as sort of a caricature of my younger self …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm

KARPOVSKY: … so a sort of a caricature of a caricature in a sense. And, you know, I, I feel like I’m hopefully more mature, I’m hopefully not as angry, although I definitely was that angry when I was younger and I feel like … you know he’s got a really hard time with ambition, I hope I have a little bit more of a congealed notion of ambition. And I think he also has no luck with relationships and I hope … well, I’m a little bit more optimistic …

HEFFNER: Count your blessings.

KARPOVSKY: Yeah, exactly.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I think that at some point, when you see a character like Ray, you, you want to believe in him. I mean you want to believe that his aspirations will be realized. And, and that motif, that, that theme was originally in the larger historiography of the American experience, a rags to riches kind of story.

But it’s more complicated today than simply rags to riches. I mean there’s some psychological elements of this new age where everything is out in the open. And I wonder if that technology isn’t imprint on Millennials that everything is out in the open … that is something of a sacrifice we’re making when we, when we make these … when we craft our own identity …

KARPOVSKY: Oh, gosh, that’s … that’s a meaty one. You know, I’ll answer that … I’ll try to answer that in a second if I, if I have anything smart to say … but you know, to start with Ray … Ray’s older than everyone else on the show.

You know we have six or seven main characters now and Ray is like a good 10 years older than everybody else. So, I think he …

HEFFNER: He’s in his thirties and they’re in their twenties?

KARPOVSKY: He’s in the mid-thirties and they’re in their early to mid-twenties.

HEFFNER: Right.

KARPOVSKY: Yeah. So he’s even older than 10 years to some of the characters. So I think technology, social media has certainly, it’s a big part of his life or it’s a part of his life, I think. But it hasn’t really shaped his identity, he didn’t really have these devices when he was in his … when he was an adolescent and really sort of … when we all put on different masks and try to figure out who the hell we are.

So, I think that’s a really big difference and I think a lot of his frustrations with people that he interacts with on the show, people in their early to mid-twenties are, are because they’ve leaned on these things and I, I don’t know if I could really unpack the psychology of, of sort of social media in that respect.

I think, you know, when I was a kid and I was angry, I couldn’t just blast it off on the Internet and blast it on Twitter, I would have to sort of percolate with my thoughts.

HEFFNER: Self-control.

KARPOVSKY: In four … yeah … I mean … sort of … not by choice. But just by …

HEFFNER: Right.

KARPOVSKY: … by lack of the tubes that make the Internet. And so I would just sort of sit with my own thoughts. And try to figure them out. And like most thoughts that I had when I was 13, 14, 15 … they would change after 20 minutes (laughter) and they would change again after an hour.

And I, you know, I would feel awful if I had sort of shared my first impulse with a thought to all these people and then I can never take it back.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

KARPOVSKY: And, and I think the fact that you’re forced to percolate on these thoughts and marinate and sort of get perspective on it through time, that sort of, you know, helps you figure how to … how your mind works. And it helps you figure how to shape opinions and thoughts and reflections.

And when that’s taken away from you I think that can potentially be a very scary thing.

HEFFNER: And is that lacking, do you think generally speaking as an observer of society today?

KARPOVSKY: I think it, it’s lacking with some young people … yes, yes. I think people who grew up Tweeting when they’re seven years old to their friends, I think … I think that can be a symptom. It can, it can be problematic. There’s also a lot of wonderful things about it, too. And I’m not talking about those things … being it’s wonderful to be able to share your opinions or jokes or ideologies, whatever with people instantly, people who are otherwise inaccessible to you. I think that’s pretty neat.

HEFFNER: How do you explain though that on, on “Girls” there seems to be this cathartic effect of most episodes and interactions among the characters. I don’t want to make this too psychological, but …

KARPOVSKY: Too late.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) … well, you’re enjoying it, right.

KARPOVSKY: I am, I am.

HEFFNER: What is the key, you think, to this cathartic effect that it’s had for a younger generation, and at the same time, it seems to have a cathartic effect on, on older folks.

Not necessarily in ways that they are willing to own up to. But what is it about the, the interaction of the characters or the lack of inhibition that, that resonates so deeply to have that cathartic effect?

KARPOVSKY: Well, I’m not sure. I think maybe people are … I hope are doing something that’s a little bit fresh and unfamiliar. That’s my … that’s how I hope the show reverberates and I think to some people it does reverberate that way. I think a lot of people are confused and angry and disoriented when they see things that are unfamiliar … especially in a very public revered space, the altar of television.

I think that depicting sex that’s awkward and sloppy and not necessarily rooted in pleasure, often done for perverse and misguided reasons … that should make people feel uncomfortable. It’s also hopefully a reflection of reality, you know. Not all sex is done by candlelight in a bathtub with two beautiful people ahem, you know, reaching climax as the same time. That’s not always how it happens. Sex is often awkward and sloppy and I hope we represent that.

And I hope we represent awkward, sloppy and humiliating aspects … the spectrum … about all aspects of daily life. And I think that does make people feel uncomfortable, because even nurturing some form of catharsis, I don’t know.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Well, there can be uncomfortable catharsis. Do you think it’s … you used the word “problematic” and I was going to use the same one … I mean, is it problematic that with everything being out in the open, that we lack, as a generation, this Millennial, or still coming of age 20s, 30s … a, a mystique. I mean because it’s so outward and, and so in-your-face … I mean does that … every generation of America in order to survive needs, needs … kind of retains some kind of mystique or mystery or something that is not expressed. Because we’re doing a hell of a lot of expressing.

KARPOVSKY: Yeah. It’s interesting, the notion of sort of intrigue and sort of mystique is definitely, I think rooted in a sense of privacy and what you do on your own in the shadows of your own free time and, and all the rest of it.

And I guess when those shadows are dwindling and this notion of privacy is increasingly being compromised or infringed upon, this …the notion of mystique is also, you know … I, I think there’s a different type of mystique that might be forming …

HEFFNER: Oh …

KARPOVSKY: … and it’s not … you know, it’s not necessarily in the sense of a personal mystique, but I think that’s sort of like … sort of a mystique rooted in alliances, or a mystique rooted in a generation or in a neighborhood or a community, if that makes sense. I think like one of the things that I really like about the show is that it sort of gives me a little insight … I feel like a fly on the wall at times because the dialogue I feel is very accurate on how to or three girls talk amongst each other.

And I think it was like Pedro Almodovar who said something like … I’m butchering and paraphrasing … but like “the root of all drama is basically being able to eavesdrop on a bunch of women talking amongst themselves.”

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

KARPOVSKY: And I think there’s a mystique in that and there’s a real intrigue in that. So it might be sort of shifting from sort of a really personal notion to slightly of a relationship notion, but I, I still find … if I see three girls that I’m interested in one, two or three … even none of them … and they’re talking, whispering in the corner … that to me is a situation bubbling with mystique and intrigue and man, I want to know what the hell they’re talking about.

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

KARPOVSKY: And I think that … and I think the show does that a lot. They explore that kind of secret, private communication.

HEFFNER: But they explore it, do you think to the detriment of, of the unknowing?

KARPOVSKY: Well, you say there is an openness … I guess I have to question the question, because you say there’s an openness in terms of all the social media and, and the fact that we have all these, you know, outlets, Internet outlets.

But in another respect I think we’re becoming more and more private and internal than ever because … physically … because we’re leaving the apartment less and less. We have more free time in our own, in our own minds because we’re not sort of forced to go out into the world as much. Much more of our socializing is done through a laptop. So, in a sense, the open forum is expanding, but in another sense I think out lives are becoming much more isolated and personal and I, I think that that’s part of the discussion as well. And I think that can’t be ignored …

HEFFNER: Right.

KARPOVSKY: … and that, that’s … I think loneliness is higher than ever, probably … you know, with the event of all the social media … I think people are becoming more isolated and lonely. And if you go to places in the middle of the country where, you know, you have to drive everywhere and everything else … I think, I think, I think my point is even accentuated out there.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm. Is there one goal that this generation, in your estimation from both acting in it and observing it, as a bystander … is there something we’re driving towards. I mean the most obvious thing, to me, as always been a cure for cancer. I’m talking about real social accomplishments and, you know, you’re right, to an extent one could be part of the process of curing cancer on his laptop or her laptop. I mean given the scientific innovation. And so it’s not a completely closed process, you can engage in interactivity and professionalism and all kinds of great endeavors electronically, but what, what do you see us driving towards?

KARPOVSKY: I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re … I don’t know if we’re driving toward anything. I don’t know if there’s convention on a specific pod at the end of the rainbow that we’re all sort of marching towards. I don’t really see it that way.

I think a lot … I think we’re in a tough spot. I think financially things are becoming … you know … ninety-nine percenters and all that. I think that’s a sort of legitimate issue. I think it’s becoming much harder to sustain one’s self especially in New York City. I think politically there’s more gridlock and partisanship than ever. So I think a … I think a lot people’s faith … at least my faith and I think a lot of people in their 20’s their faith in sort of the future … for me, it’s not very positive. It’s, it’s quite bleak. Nothing gets done in Washington for very selfish and political reasons, in my opinion. And I don’t … I mean it’s sort of … it makes me feel like we’re not necessarily moving towards a very specific goal. And, and that’s a bummer.

HEFFNER: Well, we want to drive towards an end to this entrenched partisan gridlock.

KARPOVSKY: We want to, but I don’t see any sort of people … I don’t see any leaders right now. And I’m not, I’m not submitting my own candidacy … or putting my … but like no one outside of politics, there’s no sort of spokesperson saying, ‘Look, let’s change some very, very basic, tangible accessible things”. Let’s do those. How about if you’re in politics you can’t hold stock … it’s a very simple rule. Like that will do a lot to curb special interest and lobbying and all the rest of it.

And how about the campaign …the Presidential campaign can’t last more than 6 months. Why, why does it have to last two years? It’s crazy, it’s ridiculous. These people should … President Obama should be governing the country, not half of the time going out a making campaign speeches.

We know who we’re voting for, if we’re voting. You’re either going to vote Republican or Democrat. We are so … this is such a partisan country, there’s no such thing as a swing voter anymore, it’s such a small marginal group. So we don’t need to campaign for two years. We … I mean look at most countries in Western Europe … I know they’re smaller, but still, they’re campaigning for two, three months. That’s all I need. I’d need a two week campaign, I know who I’m voting for, I think 99% of the country knows who they’re voting for. Republican or Democrat. So let’s get on with the business, let’s not campaign. These guys have to spend half of their term campaigning. Anyway, we’re getting on a political kick here. But …

HEFFNER: No, it’s, it’s a good ….

KARPOVSKY: That’s how a lot of change starts. You know, it starts by us having a political platform to embark upon social agendas.

HEFFNER: Oh, absolutely. I mean I think and I would bring this back to “Girls” only in the sense that I’d like to see a character with a political aspirations … maybe that’s in Season 4 to come. But where is the civic consciousness to be mobilizing? Because there was the Civil Rights movement and, and I like to think that young people whether it’s on the net neutrality issue or campaign finance reform or one of these deep meaty political issues you’re talking about …they’re going to galvanize, they’re going to be in the streets, they’re going to be protesting.

I mean there’s change dot org and online petitions, but then there’s really getting in the trenches and that doesn’t seem to be happening yet for this generation.

KARPOVSKY: No, it doesn’t, and I think one of the reasons is … I’ll, I’ll start this way. I was, I was really interested in support of, of the Occupy Movement. One thing that I thought was interesting … curious … was that they chose not to have a leader. And that was a big part of their cosmology. And I get it. But I also think that hampers that in today’s political or pop culture and, you know, sound … I, I think they needed someone and I know that goes … that’s antithetical to some of their notions, but I think they need to compromise on that respect, that’s my little opinion and I think if there was a real figurehead and had sort of one sort of place that kind of … there’s so much frustration and there were so many different sort of mountains of, of anger in the Occupy Movement. Which is wonderful and gave it a vitality. But it also was difficult for some people who are, are uncertain about the Movement and trying to make up their mind. It was difficult for them access. And it was easy for them to form some sort of skepticism. And it’s easy for them to be labeled by opponents as disorganized. And I feel like if some of their really, really relevant and important thoughts were simplified and maybe put through the megaphone of one or two people, I think maybe a lot more would have gotten done. Maybe not, I could be wrong. But that, that’s my feeling.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s a valid feeling because there really was not only … you mentioned not a face to the Occupy Movement, but it has not coalesced yet in a political platform, maybe with the exception of Elizabeth Warren as a single person.

KARPOVSKY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And, you know, we, we have to find that person. But that person can speak to some of the needs of our society in a non-political way because I, I wonder if you’d agree that yes the ninety-nine percenters believe in a political ethic here, but fundamentally it’s about having dinner for your family, being able to afford the rent. I mean, do you see young people, non-political, making that point and the potential for a leader to emerge who kind of can be free of this political war between the Democrats and Republicans?

KARPOVSKY: Are you … say that last sentence again … a young leader …

HEFFNER: A young leader emerging who, who can kind of be free from this quagmire of our political process. I mean is, is there anyone on the horizon who you hear young people talking about?

KARPOVSKY: No. Not, not … no, and I don’t know if I have my finger on the pulse of all this stuff. But no, I don’t. I mean, look … like you … it’s hard to sort of separate I think in our society a leadership from politics. I think the two are very much fused in many ways. But no, I, I don’t really know of one and … yeah … I don’t know.

HEFFNER: But, maybe …

KARPOVSKY: The Occupy Movement, I was wondering like I said, if somebody would emerge or someone would emerge after Occupy started to sort of lose a lot of its momentum. Maybe it was one of the “ad-busters” guys, or anybody. But I haven’t seen it.

HEFFNER: Yet to come. But I hope we’ll find that person.

KARPOVSKY: Me, too.

HEFFNER: And I want to thank you so much for joining us today.

KARPOVSKY: It was a real pleasure, thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.