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Comedian Julio Torres' personal journey gives 'Problemista' its surreal flavor

The former "SNL" writer and "Los Espookys" co-creator wrote, directed, co-produced and starred in the movie as an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador with a dream to "make it."
Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in a scene from "Problemista."
Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in a scene from "Problemista."Jon Pack / A24 Films via AP

Fans know Julio Torres as the co-creator of HBO’s bilingual comedy series "Los Espookys" and his HBO comedy special "My Favorite Shapes." Now he's kicking off the next chapter in his career with the release of "Problemista," a movie that is injected with a fun dose of surrealism and is inspired by his life in El Salvador and his immigration to New York.

“The seed of it is completely autobiographical,” the former "SNL" writer said in an interview with NBC News. “It was not calculated at all. But 'Problemista' tells the story of how I became a standup, how I got to do the other work.”

Torres wrote, directed and co-produced "Problemista," which opens in select theaters on Friday and nationwide on March 22. He stars as Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador who is running out of time to get a work visa in New York.

Alejandro’s fate in the U.S. will largely depend on the sponsorship of Elizabeth (the British actress Tilda Swinton), an eccentric artist who has become an outcast. She will teach Alejandro a valuable lesson, Torres said, that will resonate with many viewers off screen.

“What Alejandro takes from Elizabeth is the feeling that you deserve to be somewhere,” he said. “Like getting rid of that imposter syndrome that as immigrants, or as others, or even if you are not any of those things, can plague you and make you feel like you have to ask for permission to be somewhere.”

In this sense, Torres describes "Problemista" as a movie about outsiders — “people who feel that they are on the fringes” and hope to find a way in.

Catalina Saavedra in a scene from "Problemista."
Catalina Saavedra, center, in a scene from "Problemista." A24 Films via AP

Viewers will see Alejandro in complicated, sometimes larger than life situations, as he tries to find himself as an artist and a person in New York.

Inside this surreal comedy, he said, is a true story that is very close to his heart about turning his American dream into a reality.

“I think that when you feel like you’re drowning, all that you care to dream about is that you’re floating,” he said about his experience going through the immigration process, which exacerbated his identity as an outsider.

“So when I was struggling to find some permanence here, my dream was to make it. My dream was to be able to afford an apartment. Have a job. Be able to go to restaurants. And be able to do what I love for a living,” Torres said.

Now, he hopes this personal survival story can connect with moviegoers in deep and funny ways.

At one moment in the film, Swinton’s character Elizabeth abruptly calls out to Alejandro two wildly disparate things that remind her of his Salvadoran homeland: pupusas (stuffed corn cakes that are now popular in New York) and the military's notorious murder of several American nuns in 1980 at the behest of the country's right-wing government.

"Problemista" poster.
"When I was struggling to find some permanence here, my dream was to make it," Torres said of his own immigration experience, which inspired the movie.A24 Films

Off screen, Torres sums up his origin country in one word: “scrappy.” And this could also define the path of his character, Alejandro — at times disorganized or incomplete, but also determined and pugnacious in the pursuit of his dream. 

Torres has drawn wide acclaim for his comedy's unique take on politics, culture and identity, and though he's integrated his own queer and immigrant identity into his work, he doesn't think his comedy "checks any boxes," as he said in a 2019 NBC News interview.

Looking back at his career, Torres says that he doesn't study the market nor rely on industry formulas to pick a project. Instead, he believes his success is based on his ability to tell personal stories that connect truthfully with other people.

“The first time that I ever tried standup, which is how I found a way into show business, I did what I believed standup should look like,” he said.

Torres described taking the microphone off the stand and leaning on it to tell observational jokes that were relatable.

“I realized, oh, I’m just sort of impersonating standup. I’m not really being myself,” he said. “And then it was when I found a way to convey myself that I started hitting a stride.”

This approach also proved successful for him at "Saturday Night Live."

“It was when I quite literally copy-pasted from my personal notes on to a script document without worrying about 'what is this show like, what does the audience like?' — then suddenly I was doing something of some success,” he said.