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Julio Torres & Tilda Swinton Made Problemista For The Outsiders

Whether you’re an immigrant from El Salvador or an art-world outcast trying to keep your husband cryogenically frozen.

The single screenshot I have from watching the new A24 film Problemista is of a Lammhults stool in Tilda Swinton’s character’s apartment. I, the daughter of immigrants who had their own green-card troubles, bought the same ones off Craigslist shortly after moving from Bushwick, the Brooklyn neighborhood where Julio Torres’ Alejandro lives. It’s not the exact same story, but the pieces are weirdly parallel — but you don’t have to have experienced any of it to connect with this kooky, tender movie.

In Torres’ directorial debut, which hits theaters everywhere March 22, empathy is the word as Alejandro struggles with red tape and byzantine rules to secure his immigration status so he can work as a Hasbro toy designer. Along the way, he meets art-world twinks born into privileged obliviousness and Swinton’s fire-breathing, steamrolling Elizabeth, who holds the key to Alejandro’s future, even if she seems to have forgotten that she’s not American herself, as Swinton tells NYLON on an early morning Zoom.

Ahead, Torres and Swinton talk location-scouting on Craigslist, the significance of voice memos, and the Disney reference Larry Owens ran with. NB: There are spoilers below — you’ve been warned. 

Something I’m grappling with is whether to characterize Elizabeth as a villain because of the dragon portrayal, but we do also see glimmers of her humanity and softness. What’s a better way to think of the character?

Tilda Swinton: I love that you asked that question because it’s something we really treasure in Elizabeth. We were talking yesterday about how much we both love the work of Hayao Miyazaki and the way in which his villains tend to end up being nurturing and multidimensional and actually end up saving the protagonist very often. Elizabeth does exactly that. Alejandro’s decided to make her responsible for holding the keys to his freedom. But she’s the obstacle. And at the end, she’s his savior.

Julio Torres: I think multiple things can be true at the same time. Someone can be menacing and villainous and awful, but also we can feel for them. It was really exciting for us to make this very, very complicated person who to Alejandro at first seems like the dragon he has to slay but ends up then becoming something much more important.

Courtesy of A24

When you were writing and playing Elizabeth, who were you thinking of?

TS: It’s so funny because I do tend to think of someone when I’m putting together a portrait, but in this case, I really had no one. She was really a fantasy creature. She’s delusional, which is a great help. There was a big moment when Julio first asked me to play her, where I did have some doubts because I had got it into my head that she was American, and I had some issues with the idea that I would play an American of this caliber. And then when we figured out that she could not be American, this opened up the perfect Pandora’s box because this makes her an immigrant too. And that’s really significant. We have all sorts of fun playing around with fantasies of how she came to be in the States. My sense is possibly in marrying Bobby [played by RZA], she got some kind of settled status, but for a long time, she’s also an organ being rejected from body America. When we realized that that was possible, then I was in, because I went, “That I know.” Yes, she has a different story, but she’s got that same chemical reflex to find it difficult to be here, and she’s hanging on by her nails.

JT: I like to think that it’s a story of many outsiders, and we just happen to spend more time with some of them than with others. Because when I think about Bobby, too, in talking to RZA about it, the really important thing was for him to also be an outsider — for him to have made it into this collective, but his work isn’t displayed because whoever’s running it decided that “No, actually you are not one of us.” And that is what so many of the people in the movie feel. And that is what attracts Bobby to Elizabeth, Alejandro to Elizabeth. There’s this common bond of being from the outside, and you can be from the outside in more than one way.

Jon Pack

I really connected with how many different sorts of communication and miscommunication are portrayed in the film. With the voice notes and phone cards, how did you choose what forms made it into the film?

JT: I think that for the longest time, film was scared of depicting too much life on our phones because of how uncinematic it is. You would see movies and TV shows where people are meeting up for a coffee to discuss something when in real life that would’ve just been a text. But I really wanted to portray the heart-racing anxiety or joy or fear that comes from receiving a text or a voice note. And what I liked specifically about the voice notes is that there’s something a little cumbersome about receiving one because it is that person deciding that you have to stop what you’re doing and listen to them.

TS: And also, of course, the very important issue of Alejandro running out of money and living in fear of not having his cellphone work, which is a real thing for so many people. It’s not easy when really on the breadline to keep a phone going, but it seems to be more important because we’re all bionic now.

I used to live in Bushwick until recently, and I thought it was so funny that it was portrayed as a hellish place.

JT: It was so important to me that we shot there. There was this learning curve with our incredible location scout, whose name happens to be Elizabeth, where I was at first shown the cool, lofty apartments that the idealized version of us have. And then I was like, “I think we’re going to find this apartment on Craigslist. We just need to act like we actually want to rent the apartment.” We found it, and it was like, “Wow, this is exactly the apartment I was living in.” It’s like a windowless living room, the Ikea furniture.

I loved the chaos of Craigslist and how that’s depicted by Larry Owens. What research went into pulling all the other references for that character?

JT: Craigslist was something I was very well-versed in once upon a time with the gig section and getting jobs through there. The way Larry plays that being is a manifestation of what I felt like going into Craigslist for the first time, which was this scary, ominous ocean of possibilities that was both dangerous and seductive. The one note I gave Larry was to play it like Ursula from The Little Mermaid. And he ran with that. That role was written for him, and he just made it ooze sea witch, with both danger and sensuality that only he could pull off.

Courtesy of A24

I have to ask about the ending because in the interim of the 300-plus years, we don't know what happens with Alejandro. And I’ve interpreted it as if he’s making toys with his mother Dolores; he didn't stay in the U.S. Because it is possible to live a beautiful, meaningful life not here.

JT: Absolutely. At one point in very, very early versions of the script, we had scenes of Alejandro working at Hasbro and realizing that he did not like it and that it was just so constricting and narrow-minded, and then eventually going off and doing his own thing. But I do think he finds a collaborator in his mother at one point. I don’t know where. But I think he found meaning and joy in unexpected ways.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.