With ‘Problemista,’ Julio Torres Gets His Main Character Moment


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Julio Torres has never been interested in main characters—at least, not the kind Hollywood usually chooses as its heroes. Over the last decade of his career, the comedian has mined the interior lives of unlikely protagonists—his favorite shapes, a scrappy toilet plunger, a group of misfits who stage spooky scenarios for hire, and even a bathroom sink going through an existential crisis. His subjects usually exist on the fringes of the frame, and most viewers might not even register their existence.

But now, Torres has become the main character himself, taking on the lead role in Problemista, his directorial debut. Based partly on his own journey as a Salvadoran immigrant trying to secure a work visa in the U.S., the film follows Alejandro (Torres), an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador as he makes his way through the nightmarish labyrinth of American bureaucracy in New York. Along the way, he meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a mercurial and exacting art critic who enlists Alejandro to archive the artwork of her cryogenically frozen lover, Bobby (RZA). The film toys with reality, leading to fantastical, dream-like sequences that highlight the absurdity of the visa process or the realities of trying to make extra money on Craigslist. If it sounds bizarre and even a little bit insane, that’s because it is. “But I naturally tend to find humor in things, so that’s just how it came out,” the actor-director tells W.

It’s rare that a movie focused on the “immigrant experience” actually gives itself permission to be funny. How were you able to find the humor in your own journey?

It took time. I had to heal from a lot of those experiences to find humor in them. When I was stressed, I didn’t necessarily find them funny, but I did find them fascinating. I’m interested in portraying this story as I felt it. I’m not making some kind of decree that this is how all people feel. This is how I feel.

What were some of the experiences you knew you wanted to reference when you started mapping out the script?

Overdrawing from your bank account, or being trapped in immigration paperwork that doesn’t make sense. The series of contradictions in the broken systems that we have to navigate every day. A lot of these systems are like mazes, and we’re all just trapped in them. There’s a tragic humor in that.

There’s a great scene where your character has a standoff with a Bank of America employee that made me realize how we accept so many nonsensical rules in our lives. Like why are you tacking on fees to someone who you clearly know doesn’t have the money in their account?

Yes! The problem is that the “you” in that question, is someone who is going through their own problems, and they’re probably not getting paid very well at their job. But if they stop and are like, “You know what, that is stupid,” then their life is on the line. So we’re all trapped in this flawed design in one way or another.

Tilda Swinton’s character is someone who couldn’t care less about the customer service agent on the other end of the line, she’s getting what she wants. Was it satisfying to write someone like that?

It was very interesting to write someone who is the opposite of how I operate, the opposite of all my instincts. Writing her was so fun, and seeing Tilda find the character and get the humor so well was just such heaven.

Were you writing it with her in mind?

I wasn’t writing with anyone in mind. But when she read the script, I was like, “Oh my god, this is exactly what this movie needs,” because I knew that she could add an almost mythological monstrosity to this woman, and she’d give it teeth.

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton attend the Problemista New York screening at Village East Cinema on February 27, 2024.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

You also have Isabella Rossellini as the narrator. What kind of voice were you looking for with that role?

Hers. [Laughs] When I was writing it, I think that I was imagining my voice, but that obviously didn’t make sense. But then I remembered that I have been allured by Isabella and her voice and her gifted, otherworldly acting for so long.

You’ve expressed a disinterest in “main character energy” in the past. What made you ready to take on this lead role?

I wanted to see what it would feel like to act in a movie, but to be honest, I also just felt like it was easier to play Alejandro myself. But I think I’ll always be drawn to the hidden parts of people. I don’t think I could ever make a biopic about a famous person.

Now onto the Culture Diet questions. What is the last thing you Googled?

Well, I can tell you right now, actually. It was the spelling of Juergen Teller’s name. It’s not very intuitive if you’re a non-German speaker.

Definitely not. What about your routine? What are the first and last things you do every day?

I feel very unhealthy, but one of the first things I do in the morning is look at my phone, like, “Okay, what did I miss?” and I catch up with e-mails and texts. And one of the last things I do at night is watch something. It’s my way of easing into sleep.

What have you been watching lately? Have you been bingeing any good TV?

I have never seen Six Feet Under, so I’m going to do that. I recently binged Daria. Oh, and I’m also watching the new True Detective. I just recently watched the first season for the very first time.

I am too! I think watching that first season was kind of a religious experience if you were from Texas, because we were all just rooting for Matthew McConaughey.

Oh that’s so funny. All the performances and all the casting in that show are so great, even the small parts. Like them interviewing a waitress that you’ll never see again—that waitress was so good.

Also, it worked so well because it’s not like the phenomenon that’s been happening more and more in movies and TV, where everyone on screen looks—

They look like actors! That drives me insane. Like, why does every barista have a blowout?

And why do you all have veneers?

Exactly. That is something that, talking to wardrobe, hair, and makeup during Problemista, I was like, “No perfect foundation, no blowouts, no hair gel, unless we’re making a comment about someone wearing too much hair gel.” I wanted wrinkly clothes, everything as real as possible. I hate seeing how glossy New York City can be sometimes on TV. Give me stains! Please, just make it feel natural!

Do you get much time to read? What books are you reading right now?

I’m about to open Ten Bridges I’ve Burnt [by Brontez Purnell], and I’m also reading Leonora Carrington. She’s a painter, and actually, her painting inspired a lot of the wardrobe in Problemista, but she wrote a book called The Hearing Trumpet, which I’m reading right now.

In the movie, Alejandro’s mom is an artist, and the artwork we see is so imaginative and whimsical. Did you ever consider pursuing a career as an artist?

I did once upon a time. But I felt like I wasn’t gifted enough in that realm, and that what I had to say was better suited for writing. But now I get to sort of have my cake and eat it too, because I get to somewhat design and build worlds, which is what I’m most interested in.

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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