Julio Torres makes it easy to love 'Problemista'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Saturday March 23, 2024
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Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in 'Problemista' (photo: A24 Films)
Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in 'Problemista' (photo: A24 Films)

It should come as no surprise that gay writer and actor Julio Torres' film directorial debut "Problemista" (A24) would not only be quirky and original but also deeply moving, while subtly making a political statement. After all, Torres is the same person behind some of the most unforgettable "Saturday Night Live" sketches of the last ten years, including "Wells for Boys" (which is a favorite of Stephen Colbert's).

Additionally, his HBO projects, the special "My Favorite Shapes" and the series "Los Espookys" have garnered Torres raves and a sizeable audience. And who can forget his brief but memorable performance as Jules in "Together Together."

With "Problemista," in which he plays struggling toy designer Alejandro, alongside Tilda Swinton, RZA, James Scully, and Isabella Rossellini, among others, he has given viewers the most delightful movie of the season. I had the pleasure of speaking with Julio in person while he was in Miami Beach promoting his new film.

Julio Torres in 'Problemista' (photo: A24 Films)  

Gregg Shapiro: The release of "Problemista" was delayed due to the SAG-AFTRA strike. What does it mean to you that your movie can finally reach its audience?
Julio Torres: It's huge! I didn't really mourn the push at all. Anyone who's made a movie knows how long it takes. To me, personally, it was neither here nor there when it was going to come out, so long as it came out one day. I'm happy that the time is now and that it gets to be not compromised or not subverting any greater effort. Yeah, I'm happy.

"Problemista" features narration and humorous commentary by Isabella Rossellini. What made her the right voice for that role?
I think that it's because she is one of those voices that just echoes in my head and has been in my head for so long. I think the same is true of so many queer people. "And now a warning," from "Death Becomes Her," or "Blue Velvet."

And "Marcel the Shell."
Yes, "Marcel the Shell," very recently.

And the one where she voices the hamster.
Oh, yes! Stephen Dunn's "Closet Monster." Yes, she voices a hamster in that, you're right.

She has a great voice.
Yes, she has a fantastic voice. It just felt like a voice that was commanding, yet fairytale-like, that provokes respect and awe at the same time.

Tilda Swinton is alternately hilarious and terrifying as Elizabeth. Was that part written with her in mind, if not, what was involved in casting her for that part?
I did not have anyone in mind when I was writing it. I love writing for people that I know, but I didn't know anyone personally that could play her. I didn't know Tilda. Sometimes I would think of an actress, and then I would be like, "Well, I don't know these people. Why would they ever be in this?" I didn't want to paint myself into a corner.

No, I didn't write with her in mind even though I was such a colossal fan of hers for so long. Then the script got to her and she was familiar with "Los Espookys" and the "My Favorite Shapes" special on HBO and she was excited to work with me on something. It was just such a dream come true.

Alejandro has this beautiful and supportive relationship with his mother Dolores (Catalina Saavedra). Do or did you have something similar with your mother?
I do, yeah! It's very much based on my relationship with my mother. It's a bit of a thank you card to her.

Larry Owens and Julio Torres in 'Problemista' (photo: A24 Films)  

Has she seen the movie, and if so, what does she think of it?
Yes! She doesn't speak English, but she's a very visually driven person. She really loved it!

A couple of things that stood out to me are Alejandro's cowlick and his distinctive gait. Please say something about those characteristics.
The hair is something that my hair does every now and then.

Lucky you!
[Laughs] That I have that luxury [laughs]? It's also something that my father's hair does a lot. I felt like I was paying tribute to that. It also communicates that he's not on top of it. Then his walk just came about as soon as I put on the backpack. I like to think of him as a little explorer, like a little alien explorer collecting data.

Please share your decision to have Craigslist personified as a character, played by Larry Owens in "Problemista."
The incredible Larry Owens. That was a crucial decision that really opened the door to the rest of the movie. At first, I was writing or attempting to write a sort of a bare-bones, slice-of-life version of this movie. I was just so bored by it. I was so disinterested in it, and then suddenly I was like, "What if Craigslist was a person?" That unlocked the tone and style of the movie. It was one of the first pieces that came to me.

"Problemista" is timely in the way that it is also an immigration story.
People keep referring to it as timely, but I feel like this is a subject that's always happening because it's never fixed. The problem gets a different face. People say it'' timely, but I say when hasn't it been timely in recent history?

I feel like the anguish of feeling trapped in a system that has your fate in its hands, a system that has no face and makes no sense, is something that feels very relatable to people. It's something that I think that people now experience regardless of whether they're immigrants or not.

I've had people connect with it because they dealing with an insurance nightmare or bureaucracy or they're in a crazy amount of debt and they're trying to find their way out of that.

Immigration happens to be the card that I was dealt, but I think we all share this common frustration for these systems that we are constantly told to just keep our heads down, work really hard, and to overcome them. Even though this story is partially about someone who does that, it's also, I think, a story about someone who questions that well.

I think the queer community can connect to it, too because our lives feel increasingly tenuous, especially with Alito and Thomas on the Supreme Court, who want to take away our rights.
Yes, that feeling like you're building a house of cards.

Your boyfriend James Scully plays Bingham, a character who is sort of Alejandro's nemesis.
It's interesting because, yes, I agree with you, but I feel like some people misread it and see it as like a crush or something.

I didn't see it that way at all. What was it like to work with James onscreen?
It wasn't written for him. It was already written by the time I met him. I love working in community. All the people in the movie are either really old friends or new friends. I think that that is just the type of director that I am. So it really felt very organic and very joyful. My parents have been working together their whole professional lives. They are very much the kind of couple who have blueprints in bed.

So, work never stops?
Work never stops, and I think that creating is a love language for me. Extending that to people that I love is sort of a no-brainer

The final act of the movie takes place 322 years in the future. How did you decide on that specific number?
I think that's one of those numbers where it's like, "Julio, just give us a number!" And I just texted the number. I think because it feels arbitrary.

But also specific: 3-2-2.
Yes, and it's enough time for it to be extremely disorienting, but not enough time to assume that humanity is completely gone [laughs]. We're still out there somewhere or another. But (for the scene) I purposely found a space that had no windows.

Thank you for not killing us off.

Have you started thinking about or working on your next creative project?
Oh, my God, I have started daydreaming of getting the time to work on the next project. I do have a couple of seeds of ideas that I hope to get to.


'Problemista' screens at Opera Plaza Cinema through March 28, AMC Kabuki 8 through April 7, and at the Roxie Theatre starting April 5.

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