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Q&A: Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton on their surreal New York saga ‘Problemista’

Julio Torres mined his own life and experiences to make his feature directorial debut “ Problemista,” in which he plays an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador caught in the nightmarish Catch-22 of the U.S. immigration system.

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His character Alejandro desperately needs someone to sponsor his work visa, and he thinks he may have found that person in Tilda Swinton’s Elizabeth, a caustic, put-upon art critic. Together they embark on a wild, surreal New York odyssey of setbacks, bureaucratic nonsense, and art world characters all trapped in their own mazes.

Torres, too, is from El Salvador but instead of toys, he came up as an artist in the comedy world, writing for “Saturday Night Live” (he’s responsible for modern classics like “ Papyrus ” and “ Wells for Boys ”) before going on to create the HBO series “Los Espookys.”

Swinton was already fan of Torres by the time she was sent the vibrant script and was one of the ones encouraging Torres to direct it himself. But she was worried she couldn’t play Elizabeth. In a joint interview, they spoke to The Associated Press about “Problemista” (currently in theaters in limited release and expanding nationwide this weekend), the turning point for Swinton and putting their own stamp on New York movies.

Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.

TORRES: I equate it to building a sandcastle where you don’t really start out with a blueprint. You’re just sort of moving sand around and then you go, ‘Oh, that looks good.’ And then you get to a point where you’re excited about it and you call other friends, and then they start putting things together. It wasn’t me opening my computer and saying, ‘I want to write a movie.’

SWINTON: I loved the idea of a Elizabeth, but I saw her as somebody else. I didn’t see her on the page as somebody that I would play. To start, and this sounds very kind of broken of me, but I was hung up on the idea that she had to be an American. And I felt ill equipped, as I have been in the past, when playing Americans. I remember when I played an American in ‘Michael Clayton,’ a lawyer. I remember saying to Tony Gilroy, ‘I don’t know any American lawyers. I don’t know what they’re like.’ Even though I have very many divine American friends, I feel very alien to American culture. When we cleared up the possibility that she could be not American, that was for me the turning point. I thought that maybe she’d be English, and also I identified this idea of her coming from the West Country and having this particular voice. Then they also have this parity as immigrants.

TORRES: These things just sort of come out. I don’t think that you look through a menu of styles and decide, ‘That’s the kind of thing I want to do.’ This is how I know how to operate, and it’s where I’m comfortable and able to articulate ideas. What’s funny is sometimes I’ll watch a movie that’s so gorgeously simple, it’s like two characters in a house and I think, ‘Oh my god, that is the kind of thing I will do.’ And then it always ends up being a circus.

SWINTON: But that’s also true of Fellini, for example. You’re in very good company. He didn’t make films about two people in a house.

TORRES: I just really wanted to stay true to my lived experience in New York, not New York as backdrop, not New York as might as well be any other place, but the specifics of living here because it just really, really, really contextualizes the way that people behave in the every-man-for-himself attitude that a lot of the characters have.

New York has this thing where everything is slightly more pathetic than it attempts to be. Everything is going for something, but then you end up like seven steps below, if you’re lucky, because everything is so difficult to maintain here. One of my favorite locations was the cryogenesis place because you could tell what the corporate entities wanted it to look like — this high tech, picturesque thing but it just looks like a dirty spa.

SWINTON: One doesn’t want to be prescriptive. What you really want is just for people to see it. That feels a lot to ask, but we are just so relieved they’re going to get a chance now.

But just acknowledging how difficult life can be for people… the stacking of the bricks against people caught in the whole paraphernalia of trying to immigrate into the United States is really important for people to look at and think about, maybe particularly this year when they might have an opportunity to vote.

And to do it and give people the opportunity to really laugh at the same time is very generous of Julio. There’s a sort of amniotic fluid of kindness around it. There’s nothing hectoring about this film. There’s nothing piercingly angry about it. It’s about predicaments.

TORRES: I love that. Predicaments.

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