Problemista: Julio Torres Talks Immigration Woes and Whether Tilda Swinton Plays a Karen at SXSW Premiere

Half of the jokes in “Problemista” fell on deaf ears at the film’s SXSW world premiere, but not because the audience didn’t want to hear them. Rather, the Austin crowd covered up several lines of dialogue with howling laughter seemingly every other time writer-director-star Julio Torres opened his mouth as Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer in New York City doing his best not to get deported back to El Salvador.

Catalina Saavedra, who played Alejandro’s mother, Dolores, pointed out the uproar during the post-screening Q&A. When asked if it felt good to hear the reactions to the film, she joked that she didn’t get anything from it. Speaking in Spanish, she said that American audiences react that way to everything they see.

The movie did manage to slow down for its sweeter beats. During a particularly heartfelt sequence near the end of the film, Torres’ co-star Tilda Swinton, sitting behind him in the Paramount Theater, silently wrapped her arms around his chest and held him until the screen darkened.

“Problemista” follows Alejandro after he gets fired from his day job at a company that offers cryogenic freezing to the terminally ill. He then starts to work with a frozen patient’s (Robert “RZA” Diggs of Wu-Tang Clan) eccentric wife, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) in hopes that she’ll sponsor his work visa. One audience member asked Torres what inspired that narrative of desperation.

“I had a very similar experience to what was portrayed here. So I guess that was the seed … yeah,” Torres said in his signature deadpan, to wide laughter. “I wish I had a more interesting answer.”

Pink-haired and paranoid, Elizabeth is an emotionally volatile employer. An art collector with nit-picky tasks to complete all across New York and in her secondary homes in other states, she never gives Alejandro a sense of security about whether she’ll sponsor his visa after his trial run as her assistant. She also screams at multiple customer service workers throughout the movie as Alejandro watches in horror, though he eventually learns a thing or two from her. This prompted a question from the crowd about whether one needs to act like a “Karen” to get what they want in the world.

“I have thought about this a lot,” Torres said. “I like to think that he took the assertiveness and learned how to use it for better purposes.”

Swinton pushed back: “I would suggest, by the way, that Elizabeth is not a Karen. A Karen is an insider, and Elizabeth is an outsider. That’s the love story: These are two outsiders, who are both immigrants, incidentally. So she, at one point, had to go through the ropes in the same way. Well, not exactly the same way. But that’s one change I would make to your question.”

“I feel like I live my life like a little rabbit,” Torres added in conclusion. “And then I have to remember, ‘Oh right! Just in case, I do have a little claws.’”

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