Q&A: Julio Torres helms ‘Problemista’

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton at the Problemista premiere in the East Village.
Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton at the Problemista premiere in the East Village.

Alejandro is a toy who wants to be a boy. Others view him as an amusing object. They pick him up and put him back down when they feel like it. He is a Little Prince, a Pinocchio, a Stranger in a Strange Land. He has three Fairy Godmothers: his mother who loves him but is far away, the perfectly understanding but unseen narrator of his story, and a miserable Gorgon who he pities and needs. This is a Fairy Tale.

At least that’s one way of describing the set up of Problemista, the new film by the former Saturday Night Live writer and stand-up comedian Julio Torres, which goes into wide release on March 22.

Another way of describing the film’s story is more reality-based: Alejandro, who immigrated to New York City with dreams of becoming a toy designer, loses the job providing him a work visa and has one month to find another sponsoring job or he will face deportation. He must navigate the dangers and degradations of having very limited resources in a city of harsh power dynamics, easy exploitation, wounded narcissism and high anxiety.

The first version is a timeless take on growing up; the second couldn’t be more timely in a city facing an unprecedented crisis of homelessness and overwhelmed resources as more than 150,000 migrants have arrived since spring of 2022 to become our newest New Yorkers.

Gay City News spoke to Torres, 37, about becoming an auteur, (he produced, wrote, directed, and stars in Problemista), being an ally, (the film’s opening was delayed for months in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America strike), and his favorite queer haunts in Brooklyn.

Things are so much worse in the country and New York City on migrant issues since you made the film. That must be humbling.

It’s a very uncomfortable to think that this is in some way a “better time” for the movie to come out because of these horrible things. I just hope that maybe the work that I make is just a drop in the bucket of artists advocating for empathy and for the humanizing of people around us.

I hope that people feel emboldened to challenge all the systems that people are told, “It is what it is and what are you going to do?” Because that is a theme that I feel very personally connected to and that obviously the characters in this movie keep brushing up against, the struggle of a person against a system that no one can defend, but people do uphold. And we’re seeing that over and over and over again.

It seems like it’s important to you to be a visible ally. Your 2022 children’s book (“I Want To Be A Vase” with illustrator Julian Glander) seems like an act of allyship to the transgender community.

My mind keeps going to any one who feels “othered” or lonely in their lived experience. I really like examining why people feel the way that they do and going into the interiority of someone. This movie aspires to do that and the rest of my work does, too.

Do you think there is more the LGBTQ community can do to be allies to immigrants from other countries here?

I am of the mentality that struggles are shared and that you don’t walk through a door and then close it behind you. I like to think that I am embedded in a community of queer people in New York that are deeply empathetic for civil rights and human rights that goes beyond the struggles that they face in their day-to-day lives. As gayness becomes more and more mainstream, then you start seeing all shades of it. Shades that are progressive and shades that are like, “I can get married, I can buy this thing, what do I care?” Which is sad.

What communities sustain you as a queer New Yorker?

I feel very nurtured by all my queer peers in New York, that come from all over, that all look different, and that we’re all just excited to make art together, to show up for each others’ art, and that’s not even necessarily “show business,” that’s visual art, that’s music, that’s whatever. And I hope we keep supporting each other and championing each other. A lot of people in my community are in the movie.

What are some of your favorite queer haunts in New York City?

I haven’t been in a minute but I’ve had a lot of fun in Bushwick’s Happy Fun Hideaway. I end up going to the Exley a bunch, and chief among all these things is a party [and Queer People-of-Color art collective] called Papi Juice. I strongly recommend Papi Juice.

Who do you admire and think should be getting more supportive attention from the queer community?

I think that they are getting support and I think they will continue to get support, and regardless of me or this article, they will be immense stars, but Charlene and Macy Rothman are two incredible performers that we are witnessing at the very beginning of their career. I’m really excited to see where they go.