Julio Torres

All CLOTHING by Nina Ricci

Inside the Overflowing Mind of Julio Torres

There’s a lot of stuff in Problemista, the debut film from writer-performer Julio Torres which came out earlier this year. He plays a budding toy designer loosely based on himself, and the character's hyperactive imagination acts as a cinematic prism through which every little object, interaction, and idea becomes part of a vision uniquely his own. (Anyone who’s seen Torres's 2019 HBO comedy special, My Favorite Shapes, has glimpsed his idiosyncratic style: silly but earnest, with an endearing cutesiness that's saved from becoming grating or going overboard by his deadpan delivery and the seriousness with which he takes his obsessions.)

The movie—which Torres wrote, directed, and stars in—follows a Salvadoran immigrant working odd jobs in Bushwick, desperately waiting for a job offer from Hasbro as the clock counts down on his expiring student visa. Torres depicts this bureaucratic nightmare, which demands thousands of dollars for fees while precluding him from holding a paying job, as a literal rat race his guileless avatar must navigate. His prismatic imagination also incorporates symbolic hourglasses, endless coat check closets, and a spectral Craigslist (played by fellow Brooklyn polymath Larry Owens) who sinisterly offers kinky “cleaning boy” gigs.

TOP by ,Bulan

TOP by Bulan

“I think that kind of stuff just ends up happening,” Torres says in an interview about the film's abundance. “I didn't set out to make a movie with so many visual flourishes and metaphors, but that's just how it comes out of me. It's my way of explaining feeling. When I want to convey emotion, that's where the writing goes. The movies that get to be visually rich are huge, mainstream, whatever, fantasy-action comic book movies that have all the money in the world but only play in this very narrow avenue. I like exploring the medium, showing what it feels like to have an argument on the phone as battling a monster in a cave.”

All CLOTHING by ,Loewe

All CLOTHING by Loewe

The concept for Craigslist came first and cracked open the film's possibilities to Torres, who'd been hesitant (“quite frankly, very bored”) about the prospect of telling a semi-autobiographical story. Having been staffed as a writer on Saturday Night Live (he wrote the “Wells for Boys” skit when Emma Stone hosted in 2016) before co-creating the series Los Espookys for HBO, he'd been toying around with the idea of writing a screenplay. “It wasn't until I thought Craigslist could be an entity that I understood what kind of movie this could be,” he says. “The thesis that kept being presented to me was that this would be me putting my story out there. That's a comedian thing, frankly, where the persona and the product are so intertwined. There's constant feedback there, especially for someone who's any kind of other. For the longest time, it felt like, ‘Well, if you're not going to make something about an immigrant who is gay, then why are we talking?’”

But eventually he felt learning about himself and leaning into his experiences securing a visa (as an Alien of Extraordinary Ability) in writing the film could be “emotionally treacherous and interesting.” Torres moved to the U.S. from San Salvador in 2009, transferring to the New School as a sophomore studying writing. While honing his comedy skills, he found himself art world-adjacent, paying bills by working various assistant jobs and the front desk at the Neue Galerie. He compares this stint to liking movies and working at a movie theater, a visual enjoyment of the art around him being the only thing that drew him to the scene.

All CLOTHING by ,Ferragamo

All CLOTHING by Ferragamo

But the notoriously personality-filled art world brought him face to face with a particular type of person—one embodied by Tilda Swinton, in a rare comic performance, in Problemista. Her character, a frazzled art critic, is looking for someone to index her late artist husband’s paintings and hires Torres’s Alejandro. Despite her mistreatment of virtually everyone around, or beneath, her, the two form a tender bond, perhaps out of a creative recognition he feels with her husband’s unsellable, but lovingly constructed, series of egg portraits. “I’ve always been interested in difficult people,” Torres says. “I’m a very curious person and, if someone is difficult, my instinct is to explore why. I think I only realized this while writing the movie. In the course of rewriting it, it went from a story about perseverance and the little guy triumphing against all odds, blah blah blah, to being about being so in love with all these very difficult people.”

Torres, who carries himself with a wide-eyed curiosity and eagerness to engage, has seemingly boundless empathy. Though you'd almost call the New York City he portrays in the film post-apocalyptic, with heaps of trash piled on the streets, he says he loves it. His own iPhone camera roll is littered with photos of garbage, his eyes drawn to the shapes of the mounds in his Brooklyn neighborhood. “It's not a criticism of New York, showing the garbage,” he explains. “I love it, I feel very at home in the garbage. They're like accidental little still lifes and there's something so beautiful in them. For some reason, movies only present garbage when they want to convey that something is dirty, but, to me, I'm conveying that there are real people living here with real problems and real stories. I'm not advocating for pollution, but that's part of living in a city.”

All CLOTHING and TIE by ,Alexander McQueen,. SHOES by ,Ferragamo,.

All CLOTHING and TIE by Alexander McQueen. SHOES by Ferragamo.

He rents a storage unit where he dumps whatever doesn't fit in the catchalls he has in his apartment, which he says are currently populated by broken sunglasses, a forgotten prescription, a broken watch, and gum. “Unfortunately, if I see something interesting, I have to get it,” he jokes. Clutter is not a dirty word for Torres, but there's a telling difference between IRL curios and the psychic junk that can cloud your ability to exist. Problemista deals with both: the Barbie dolls and knickknacks which fuel his character, and the complexes of red tape enveloping modern life. “The qualms I have with living here are not the people,” Torres says. “It's the systems around you that make you feel like you don't belong. I've actually felt very embraced by Americans. But there are limitations that an international student has, put in place to keep asphyxiating you and make the journey feel very lonely. That's what I didn't like. It also feels like I need an account and password for everything. It all feels like there's different systems that I have to navigate at all times, and that's the part that I don't like.”

All CLOTHING by ,Saint Laurent

All CLOTHING by Saint Laurent

Up next for the Problemista—leaning into his love for difficulty, he says the film's title is a Spanish play on art movements like the Surrealists—is either an exploration of the internet and our the emotions behind social media, whose on-screen conflicts he considers “viscerally undramatic,” or following a daydream of his to do something with fairies, “like a FernGully moment.” If the project calls for it, he'll star again, though he says acting was the most challenging aspect of Problemista, despite years of performing experience and the novelty of writing and directing a feature film. But he's learned his lesson about trying to find a director who could be molded to think like him, as he was tempted to do before locking himself into the role this time around. “I'm director boots,” he says, smiling. “It's very much my thing.”

Problemista is now playing in theaters and is available on streaming services.

Julio Torres

All CLOTHING by Balenciaga

Julio Torres

SWEATER by Bulan

Hair by Junya Nakashima at Streeters . Makeup by Cyler. Set design by Noemi Bonazzi at Mini Title.

As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.