Julio Torres’ Work Visa Comedy Problemista Is Finally Hitting Theaters

Mar 9, 2024

When Julio Torres jumped on a Zoom to discuss his directorial debut “Problemista” it was at the end of June 2023. The WGA strike was going on, but as the filmmaker, he could still speak about his upcoming film. At the time, word was the Screen Actor’s Guild would avoid a strike with the AMPTP. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” hadn’t even opened. Their review embargos were not even up yet. Beyonce’s “Renaissance” tour hadn’t hit North America yet. No one was freaking out about Joe Biden’s age and the former president had only two criminal indictments against him at the time. And then, despite Torres and star Tilda Swinton doing substantial press, A24 took the movie off its previously announced August release date. And yet, maybe this was just another not-so-fantastical chapter in Torres’ increasingly fantastical career.
READ MORE: “Problemista” Review: Julio Torres debuts with a charming immigration fairy tale [SXSW]
A “Saturday Night Live” staff writer from 2016 to 2019 (he’s credited for the Emma Stone classic, “The Actress,” among other sketches), he left the show to co-create and star in the series “Los Espookys” for HBO. Following its debut in 2019, the surreal comedy program immediately gained a cult fanbase and quickly earned a renewal for a second season. But, after the cast arrived in Chile to begin filming, the pandemic broke and it all ground to a halt. The second season finally arrived in September 2022, three years after the first go around. Then, less than three months later, HBO canceled the series only to see it win a prestigious Peabody Award in May 2023.
But, hey, this can’t be a trend for Torres, right? Because that would be odd, right?
The El Salvador native wrote, directed, and starred in the aforementioned “Problemista,” which was filmed in November 2021 before he ever went back to finish “Los Espookys.” The movie didn’t have a public debut until SXSW 202 while A24 dated the film for August 4, 2023. Then they decided to drop it on March 1, 2024, almost 2 1/2 years after it was filmed. But the good news is, it’s finally getting to theaters and, hopefully, enough word of mouth will give it the audience it deserves. And more importantly, maybe any success it can muster means Torres and his fans don’t have to wait so long for his next big or small screen endeavor.
During that interview, conducted in another era, Torres reflected on his then-“recent” Peabody Award win, how Swinton somehow got ahold of the script without his knowledge, how he unexpectedly found himself directing the movie, the importance of writing material for the people he loves to star in, and much more.
The Playlist: So congratulations on winning a Peabody Award.
Julio Torres: Thank you. Thank you so much.
I just got to ask you, before we talk about the movie, considering, because I know you went through a lot making that show, did that mean something at the end, after the starts and stops and everything, especially with season two? Can you just talk about that for a second?
Oh. Sure. I really mean when I say that I’m very humbled and honored that anyone would give the show any award, because it’s like you really are going out of your way to do that. Certainly, no one has campaigned for it. It’s like you’re really … Yeah. No. It’s just, we always knew that we were making a show that was going to be really interesting to some people, and I don’t know. I like to think that we made the kind of show that we love watching, and it’s very humbling that anyone would give it anything. Yeah. I mean, a Peabody, it’s so chic.
It is super chic, and you’ll always be able to say you’re a Peabody winner, which is freaking awesome. So congratulations.
Yeah. Thank you.
But let’s talk about “Problemista,” which I loved. Was this a script that you’d written years ago that you were trying to get made, or was it something more recent?
No. I had the seed of an idea for a while, and I had been thinking about it but not really writing it. Then, it wasn’t until 2020 when we had to halt production on “Los Espookys” that I actually started writing. So I wrote it on 2020, and I think directed it in 2021.
When you talk about the seed of the idea, can you expand on that?
Yeah. I mean, I felt like there was a movie somewhere in the journey of getting a work visa, which is a process that I went through. It’s very grounded in my experience and just chewing on that and what that felt like, and then having Elizabeth’s voice in my head and just feeling like, “Oh. This is a character, and she’s very alluring,” that dynamic, and then exploring it further and realizing, “Oh. This is a movie about problems. This is a movie about problems, attracting problems, people attracted to problems, people creating problems,” and then unlocking the tone of the movie and allowing myself to realize that I should approach it the way that I had approached “Los Espookys,” or the “SNL” sketches, or “My Favorite Shapes,” which is through metaphor and through fantastical elements. Then, suddenly, it started coming. It started taking shape.
You often use these surreal and fantastical sort of elements in your work. Say you’re shooting Larry Owens as the living embodiment of Craigslist or whatever. Do you get nervous, like, “I don’t know if this is going to work”? Is it something you’re always comfortable with?
I’m very comfortable with it, and I’m very comfortable. That’s the way that I know how to express myself. Even conversationally, I find myself expressing thought through metaphor. The question of whether or not it’ll work, the question of whether or not it’ll mean what I want it to mean, that it’ll be understood, I’m always kind of wondering that, but I don’t really let it consume me. But yeah. I mean, when Ana and I were making “Los Espookys,” we were like, “Are people going to get this?” Then, when I was directing “Problemista,” I was like, “Are people … Is this going to … Well, who knows?” Then, I just keep going.
Did the fact “Los Espookys” found an audience, that people did appreciate it, did that make you more confident going in with “Problemista”?
Mm-hmm. Yeah. Completely.
Let’s talk about Elizabeth’s character, because you said she was someone in the back of your head. Was she some New York woman that you’d met while living there? Was she just something that had popped? Where was your inspiration for her?
I think she’s an amalgamation of a lot of people. She’s all id. There’s just so much of other people in her. Frankly, sometimes, I’m wandering around New York with two iPhone chargers, a crumpled water bottle, and my flashlight on on my phone, just losing track of what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m like, “Oh. O.K. Got it,” and I’m just forgetting my password and getting really fussy. I think we all have a little bit of her in us, and yeah. She’s just like an unregulated side of all of us, I think, but yeah. I mean, New York is just such a hot spot for people like that.
That’s an understatement, and Tilda, was she just someone that you’d thought about while you were writing it? Did someone suggest her?
The script got to her, and when I was writing it, I was really not thinking about … I didn’t think that I was going to direct it. I wasn’t even sure that I was going to act in it. I was just writing. I was just having fun writing and building this world, so I wasn’t even thinking about casting or things like that. Then, the script got to her, and she wanted to do it. It was like, “Oh my God. What a dream come true. Now, this feels so real.” She brought so much to the character, and yeah. Now, it’s impossible to imagine the movie with anyone else.
You almost didn’t star in it. You weren’t sure you were even going to direct it. Do you remember when that changed? Had you pitched it to A24, and they’re like, “You should direct this”?
We were thinking about directors, and a couple of directors read it. The reaction kept being, or at least was a couple of times, “I like the script, but it feels like an already fully-formed thing. I don’t know what I would contribute to it.” Then, I was like, “Well, I do enjoy world building, and I do enjoy talking to actors. I do enjoy production.” I think I was intimidated by the amount of work maybe, so and then just sort of got over that and just did it. I’m so happy that I did, and Tilda was such a champion in being like, “No. He should direct it.” Yeah. I think there is a world where this script gets in the hand of a director, and that director casts someone, and I’m somewhere else. But I think it’d be a completely different movie.
Now that you’ve now done this experience, do you have the directing bug? Do you want to do it again?
I do. Yeah. I really want to do it again. I love it.
If you’d had your choice, would you have preferred to direct, written, or starred in this? Is there one you enjoyed more than the other?
Oh. If I absolutely had to pick, I think, because I have come up as a writer, then maybe that.
You don’t care if you star in your stuff. It’s not that important to you?
No. It’s not that important to me. I don’t have this relentless need to be seen. I really, really don’t have the thing of like, “Oh. I got invited to an event. Thank God,” or like, “Another photo shoot. Thank God.”
“Thank God the Peabody Award ceremony was canceled. I don’t have to go.” Yes.
Yeah. I mean, I like creating. I like creating things, and sometimes the process of creating things means that I am the physical manifestation of it, and sometimes it doesn’t. I can totally see myself directing work that I’m not in at all. I have certainly. Most of the things that I’ve written were at “SNL,” where I didn’t appear a single time, and I had a blast doing it. I feel that I am present, even though when I’m not physically present.
You are part of a larger New York sort of ecosystem of amazing actor, comedic actors, queer-adjacent, sort of, in many ways. Did you write the script, realize you’re directing it, and then be like, “Oh. I want to call Larry. I know Greta Lee.” Did you know who to immediately call?
Yeah. One thing that Tilda and I have in common that I didn’t realize until I started working with her is that we both like creating working community. We both like having a family of people that we like to grow with. Because a Tilda becomes a Tilda if there’s people who grow with her, and believe in what she’s doing, and see the talent, and see the potential. I am a believer in that. I don’t like the idea of casting just via auditions or something like that, or dangling parts in front of people and seeing if they get it. I write for people. I tailor parts for people, and Larry was Craigslist. River was the Bank of America teller, and that’s how we did “Los Espookys,” too, of just writing for friends. I’m a big supporter of that. I’m a big supporter of making things in community, and I’m a big supporter of working with the people that I love. I hope and I’m confident that all these people will also have their shows and will also have their movies, and I will do little bit parts in them whenever they have me. Because I really believe in moving together.
Now that you’ve got this movie that’s coming out finally in theaters, and you’ve clearly worked on it for a number of years, do you know what you’re doing next?
I don’t have another movie script that I’ve written. Early this year, I directed a, I don’t even know what to call it, a show of vignettes for HBO that, I wrote it, and I directed it. It’ll probably, I don’t know, come out at some point next year or something.
Is it…
It’s six episodes.
But they’re shorts?
They’re shorts. Yeah. It’s sort of like, I like to think of it as my take on “Fantasia” or something like that, but a budget “Fantasia.” I don’t know. It’s a bizarre little experiment that I’m very happy with. Obviously, right now, we’re paused, but..*
*Editor’s reminder: This interview took place during the WGA strike.
Oh. Right. Of course. Yes.
But yeah. I don’t know how that’s going to pan out, but I really love doing it. But I really want to make another movie. I think I just need to take the time to just sit by myself and a notebook and see what comes out.
“Problemista” opens in limited release on Friday.

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