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In 'Problemista' Julio Torres spins immigration stress into satire

Julio Torres attends a screening of <em>Problemista</em> in New York on Feb. 27.
Dimitrios Kambouris
/
Getty Images
Julio Torres attends a screening of Problemista in New York on Feb. 27.

Comic, actor and filmmaker Julio Torres came to the U.S. from El Salvador in his early 20s — and he says he is personally familiar with "all the Catch-22s of the immigration system."

Take, for instance, needing to prove that he was a working artist in order to obtain an artist visa — but not being able to earn money as an artist without the visa.

"Originally, I came to the U.S. with a student visa, and then I had a work visa," Torres explains. "Then I had to go from a work visa to an artist visa, because under the work visa, I wasn't able to earn money as a stand-up comedian or writer or anything creative, because that's not what the work visa is for."

As an aspiring writer for TV and film, Torres found that the New York City open-mic stand-up scene was a great way to establish himself in the creative world. Along the way, he says, "I fell in love with the world I accidentally wandered into, and I made a lot of friends in that world. And then the stand-up became a calling card for what I do now."

Torres draws directly from his own experience in his new satirical film Problemista, which he wrote, directed and stars in. He plays Alejandro, an immigrant whose visa is running out, and who needs a job and someone to sponsor him. Tilda Swinton co-stars as a difficult art critic and potential sponsor who wants Alejandro to be her personal assistant — but who has her own complicated life.

"This movie deals with the problem of immigration, but I think of it as a very silly, happy and joyful movie," he says. "It's almost like the bureaucracy becomes this bouncy castle that the characters just get to play and laugh about."

Torres' previous work includes stand-up specials for HBO and Comedy Central, short films for SNL and Los Espookys, a Spanish language comedy series for HBO which he wrote and acted in.


Interview highlights

On what "Problemista" means to him

The road to finding a title for the movie was long. It had many titles during many different points, and none of them felt completely right. And then at one point, we were toying with the idea of calling it "Problema," which just literally means "Problem." But I just felt dread calling this movie "problem," because it just felt so dreary. And that's not the tone of the movie at all. So then I was trying to find something a little bit more playful, and I was thinking of what you would call someone in an artistic movement in Spanish, like a surrealist is a "surrealista." And then I thought, well, then maybe someone who creates art from problems is a "problemista." So I just sort of made it up. It almost sounds like the kind of thing that you'd make up in slang in El Salvador, sort of in the way that, you know, you hear about people being "fashionistas" or "Maxxinistas." It's like, oh, a problemista is someone who is attracted to problems or thrives within problems.

Julio Torres as Alejandro and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth in <em>Problemista</em>.
/ A24
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A24
Julio Torres as Alejandro and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth in Problemista.

On the Tilda Swinton character, Elizabeth, who is very difficult — and Torres' love of difficult people

She's an amalgamation of so many people that I met. I think that it's almost like the artist rite of passage, in New York City at least, to wind up being the assistant to so many people who are just so flustered by the fact that they haven't figured out so much. And I was a short-term assistant for so many people. ...

I am very attracted to difficult people. I don't see difficult people as nightmares to escape. I'm really drawn to them like a moth to a flame. And then there are more than a few that I came to really, really, really empathize with and appreciate. And I think that Tilda's character is rooted in that. ...

I honestly don't think that I want to change anyone so that they fit in the world. I think that sometimes I want to change the world so that it can accommodate the janky edges of a person.

I honestly don't think that I want to change anyone so that they fit in the world. I think that sometimes I want to change the world so that it can accommodate the janky edges of a person.

On feeling like an outsider in El Salvador because of his sexuality and atheism

I just felt like I couldn't really, like, emotionally connect to my peers and my surroundings in a way that was very alienating. Like, I was so disinterested in watching a game of soccer. And that felt like something that connected so many of the boys around me, or playing a sport. ... I just have always felt a little alien. And then coming to New York and being legally labeled as an "alien." ... Because that is the term they use. You have an ID and it says "alien." It just sort of solidified this point of view, and I think that I will forever be attracted to people who don't quite fit in, and realizing that those people are not just foreigners.

On his intense focus on getting his visa to pursue creative life

During the time when I was trying to get a work visa, I made up a rule for myself where I would only wear black and white because I felt like color was too distracting.

Living a creative life and doing the kind of work that I want to do was the driving force. And then my personal life has always fallen by the wayside. ... In the year or so that inspired this movie, Problemista, I was so laser-focused on getting a visa, and I wasn't really interested in friendships or dating or anything, because I felt like I needed to put my humanity on hold to pursue this thing. In fact, during the time when I was trying to get a work visa, I made up a rule for myself where I would only wear black and white because I felt like color was too distracting, and I felt like I hadn't earned color, and I felt like I could wear colors, maybe, once I got a visa and I had more breathing room to think about other things.

On immigration now

I came to the U.S. in 2009. And no, to be honest, my experience is radically different [from] the crisis we're all seeing in the news. The crisis is very present in New York City right now. But the thing about me and the character that I play in this movie is that it wasn't really the story of someone escaping for survival. It's the story of someone just escaping or leaving for a greater ambition, to find himself.

Lauren Krenzel and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: March 10, 2024 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of Julio Torres as Julia.
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