Ray Ploshansky is having a rough year. Stuck in a lackluster relationship with a disinterested Marnie (Alison Williams) and yearning for more connection, Ray is forced to confront his own inertia when his boss and good friend Hermie (Colin Quinn) dies unexpectedly. In Sunday’s episode, “Gummies,” Marnie’s dispassionate reaction to Hermie’s death is the last straw for Ray.
As actor Alex Karpovsky explained during an interview with Flavorwire on Monday in New York, Ray was never supposed to be a regular character. He was initially Girls‘s resident grumpy old man, the voice of reason or, at least, opposition, calling out the girls on their petty hangups. But as he developed a real romance with Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet, who was also bumped up to series regular after shooting began), Ray became an indispensable member of the ensemble, and, in a way, the heart and soul of the show. We spoke to Karpovsky about finding inspiration in old emails, Ray’s victories and defeats, and why Marnie gets under his skin.
Flavorwire: What I love about this series is that despite this common complaint of, “Why won’t these girls just grow up already,” that’s exactly what we’ve been watching them do for six seasons. But Ray was always the resident grown-up. How would you characterize his growth over the years?
Alex Karpovsky: In Season 1, we’re introduced to this character that yells a lot, he’s very judgmental, he’s very cynical. But it’s not until Season 2 that we start to explore the underpinnings of these feelings and behaviors — what is driving this guy? What are his insecurities and fears? Through his relationship with Shosh and others, we start to see him get a little perspective and clarity on some of his shortcomings and limitations, and finally, I think, in Season 6, we see him learn from that perspective and apply it to his life. He’s no longer content just sweeping things under the rug, and he resolves to really bring his house in order — to end relationships that are not fulfilling, to do things that give him a sense of purpose and meaning, and to not take anything for granted.
It seems like Ray doesn’t have a lot of friends, and particularly male friends, especially now that Hermie’s gone and Charlie’s out of the picture. Do you think he’s been shaped by the women in his life?
I don’t think Ray has a lot of friends in general. He’s kind of a loner, he’s a difficult man. He realizes, somewhere in his mind, that he needs to come to terms with his anger. Although they’re a lot younger, the girls he’s interacting with — specifically Marnie, Shosh, and Hannah — could offer him something. I think he realizes that they could offer him more than a potential friendship with Elijah or even Adam could offer him. I don’t think he’d ever admit that.
Did you know at the start, or do you think Lena Dunham and the writers knew, that Ray was going to be such a big part of the ensemble?
I don’t think he was supposed to be in the pilot — I don’t know the reasons entirely, but they gave him a scene or two. I really thought that was going to be it. Then they brought me back, I was recurring in Season 1. But I think what gave them the idea [to keep him on] — I think it was maybe two things, and I’m really speculating, because I haven’t talked about this with everyone. I think they correctly anticipated the potential criticism of the show and there was a logic in place, a theory, that if someone called out the girls before the audience called them out, it would help things along. That’s really his role in the pilot — “You think McDonald’s is bad? Actually, McDonald’s employs a lot of people, and they have a really stable product, which is hard to do.” To just be an agitator who puts things in perspective and also calls them out on their bullshit, which is sometimes petty, trivial, and pampered, is important. I think it’s important to alleviate the frustrations of the audience.
And I think there’s just a chemistry he had with Shosh, towards the end of the first season. They connect on this weirdo, freak wavelength and [the writers] fell in love with Shoshanna, and they wanted to find a way to keep her going, and I think that sort of allowed Ray to keep going.
It’s interesting hearing you say this, because I feel like at this point, Ray and Shoshanna are kind of the heart and soul of the series. They seem to have the healthiest, most stable relationship and in retrospect, neither was supposed to be a regular character.
Yeah, I love the energy between those two, even six years later. They not only connect but they respect each other in weird, different ways. That really adds a lot of gravity to their interactions. They can just be real and have fun with each other, which is not the case with a lot of his other friendships. They love each other’s company.
Back in the first season, Ray claimed to hate Marnie so much and so often that it was obvious he was hot for her. What is it, or was it, about Marnie that got him so hot and bothered? What is it about her that gets under Ray’s skin?
I think what kept them together was some strange combination of lust and projection and loneliness. But those are not sturdy pillars to support a foundation that’s healthy, so they had to come down. I think they took too long to do it; you’re kind of frustrated by these people because they’re not growing, they don’t support each other, they don’t care that much for each other, especially Marnie — I don’t think she’s really that interested in Ray. I think it’s the inertia that comes from cowardice that kept them together for as long as they did.
Ray’s parents are dead, and he doesn’t seem to have much other family. Do you have Ray’s backstory in your head?
Well, sort of. Especially in Season 1, I would come up with references of who he reminded me of. He was a little bit of this person, a little bit of that person. But more than anything else, I realized he reminded me of who I used to be about ten years ago. Someone who is much more judgmental and cynical, has a lot more unresolved anger, is a lot more existentially disoriented. I thought about those traits, and I try to put them into high relief. I essentially try to create a caricature of my former self for comedic effect. To some degree, I relied on memory, but my memory is not great and thousands of bong hits probably does not help.
The thing that I discovered in Season 1 that was more helpful than anything else was emails. I would go into my old emails — you can enter these date parameters for your search, and then you can type in a keyword. You know how search engines work. And that was really helpful. If there was a scene where Ray runs out of his house to scream at a honking car and handle rage in this really public and unstable way, I could maybe look up “rage” or “fury” or “I’m sorry” or “please accept this gift” or “we do not need to involve lawyers.” My whole human tragedy is in my inbox. It’s all there. I only really need to read the first three sentences of an email and this visceral wave of memories and feelings and thoughts washes over me.
How do you think Ray, ten years ago, saw his life panning out? Do you think there’s a big discrepancy between that and his current reality?
I’d like to think he had some lofty goals for himself and I think, unfortunately, a lot of those have not been fulfilled. I can imagine Ray from ten years ago thinking he could start his own band that got successful, or maybe was in a relationship if not a marriage by now, maybe had a little bit of a family. But he did not succumb to the man. He kept his independence to some degree. He is a local business owner. I think he would not have anticipated becoming a politician, even though it was short-lived. So I think there are victories and defeats, but I suspect more defeats.
There was one line in that scene between Ray and Marnie at Hermie’s house, when she calls him a “cliché” for thinking about his own mortality in light of Hermie’s death. Ray’s response is a little cryptic: “Why should I be smarter than this?” How did you interpret that?
I think Ray sometimes feels like he’s too analytical for his own good, and too removed from his feelings. He feels like he needs to be smarter than a situation, or more quick-witted. I think he’s starting to realize that. Why should he be smarter than this? He needs to feel this. He needs to engage with it, negotiate it, and maybe learn from it.
Is this the longest you’ve played a single character?
Oh, yeah. I haven’t really done much TV outside this, everything else has been movies. And they’re little independent movies, so they don’t really span time. The budgets don’t allow them to span time.
What does it feel like to leave him behind?
It’s sad. I love Ray. I have a very tortured relationship with him. I’m very frustrated by him and the quicksand that he often mires himself in. I’ve seen him kind of fumble his way toward deeper maturity — I like to think maybe I helped steer him, on one or two occasions, towards maturity. He’s almost a child to me. I like stepping into his shoes, almost as much as I like stepping out of his shoes. It’s fun to hop on a soapbox with him and yell at the world.