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The new film 'Problemista' follows the issues of a man trying not to lose his visa

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: Let me tell you about another A Martinez. Alejandro Martinez is the main character in a new film, "Problemista." It's written by Julio Torres, who's best known for writing some of the most absurd "Saturday Night Live" sketches in recent years. "Problemista" is about an aspiring toymaker in New York, originally from El Salvador. While he waits for Hasbro to give him his dream job, he struggles to stay in the United States as he navigates the convoluted system for acquiring a work visa.


LAITH NAKLI: (As Khalil) You got to get another sponsor pronto, rapido. You have a month to find someone to co-sign your visa, and if you don't, you have to leave the U.S.

JULIO TORRES: (As Alejandro) Yeah. I've been working on that. I started freelancing for this lady. It'll just be a few hours here and there.

NAKLI: (As Khalil) Look, other thing is, you can't take money right now. I hope this lady's not paying you.

TORRES: (As Alejandro) What do you mean?

NAKLI: (As Khalil) You can't take money until they officially sponsor you.

MARTÍNEZ: That lady is Elizabeth, played by Tilda Swinton, and she's one of the most intense, nightmarish bosses you have ever seen or heard of. In addition to writing and directing "Problemista," Torres also plays Alejandro, and he knows from experience that the real-life visa system is even more bizarre than any of his "Saturday Night Live" sketches.

TORRES: If you are applying for a work visa, that means that you legally cannot accept money. However, paying for this visa is expensive. It's thousands of dollars. So then you're in this position where it's like, oh, I guess I should have just pulled $6,000 out of my butt (laughter) and, like, not have to work for it. Like, is that how it works? And it's like...


TORRES: What's frustrating is that the system is designed to want the immigrant to turn away at every step, to give up and be like, you know what? This is too hard. Goodbye. It's as if what they are saying is, if you aren't already rich, we don't want you here.


TORRES: It's this maze-like situation. It's a Catch-22 upon a Catch-22.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, I got to say, Julio, I'm thinking about all the people that I know that have dealt with this, and they're, like, constantly stressed out because they're trying to stay in this country. But Alejandro seemed very, like, just happy to be where he was at.

TORRES: It is a cloud that's hovering over you when you're going through something like that because it feels a problem that's, like, invisible and omnipresent. That is sort of the really frustrating things about dealing with bureaucracy - right? - is that you're not up against the person. You know, it's not like fighting with a loved one or something like that. It is this sort of invisible force that no one can defend but people do uphold, which is the very frustrating part of it.

But, you know, Alejandro wants to be here. He is happy to be here. And he's sort of finding himself in this journey. And also, if Alejandro is - I think there's something to the fact that he seems able to not take this personally, unlike Tilda Swinton's character, Elizabeth, who seems to take everything so personal and seems to be - feel wronged by everyone at every turn. I think Alejandro is constantly trying to find the humanity in the people that he's up against.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So let's get into Elizabeth, Julio, because...

TORRES: Yes, the opposite.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, 'cause I had trouble, at first, liking her. I love Tilda Swinton, but I had trouble liking Elizabeth.

TORRES: I completely get it. I mean, she is difficult to like.


TILDA SWINTON: (As Elizabeth) Oh, this menu. What is it with walnuts? Walnuts, walnuts, walnuts - it's like a cafe for squirrels.

JACK P RAYMOND: (As waiter) Well, the walnuts - they go very nicely with the salad.

SWINTON: (As Elizabeth) Do I look like I need educating on fine cuisine?

RAYMOND: (As waiter) Oh, no, no, no. I wasn't saying that.

SWINTON: (As Elizabeth) Don't scream at me.

RAYMOND: (As waiter) I wasn't.

MARTÍNEZ: So let me explain Elizabeth for a second because - OK, Elizabeth is a woman that Alejandro meets when he is getting fired from a cryogenics company, right? And that's where her husband, Bobby, played by RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, is being frozen.


MARTÍNEZ: You get fired. You meet her. And she is - what? - an art dealer?


MARTÍNEZ: Elizabeth kind of dangles this visa for you - for Alejandro - in exchange for Alejandro to keep working his butt off for her. So that's why, right off the bat, I kind of didn't like her.

TORRES: And I think there are many little promises that people with more power just sort of casually say to people with less power. And those of us who've been in a position of desperately wanting something and it being casually mentioned that that might happen - promises that are said lightly weigh so heavily on others, and I think that that's what you picked up on.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned how he wants to be a toy maker, a toy designer. The ideas that Alejandro has - I guess, what would be the best way to describe his toy ideas?

TORRES: Oh, they're unsellable (laughter). They're unmarketable.


TORRES: (As Alejandro) Toys these days are wonderful, but they are a little bit too preoccupied with fun.

Well, he is interested in toys that present problems. Like, he has this idea for, like, a Slinky that won't actually move down stairs, so kids have to, like, move it manually step by step...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

TORRES: ...And in the process, learn that doing things the hard way can bring joy.


TORRES: (As Alejandro) A doll that is kind of like a Barbie, except she has her little fingers crossed behind her back. This, I believe, will add much tension and intrigue to any Dreamhouse. Life can't be all parties.

And that is sort of what being an artist with a vision is - is not just saying, like, oh yeah, I'll do anything. It's like, no, I want to do this very specific thing that I've been thinking about. And that just makes it so much harder.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, Julio, to me, you've got what I call this anti-alpha-male aesthetic in what you write. I mean, I think so. I mean, I even go back to your "Saturday Night Live"...


MARTÍNEZ: Some of your best skits for "Saturday Night Live" were very anti-alpha male as far as I'm concerned. Is that a fair way to describe some of the stuff you do?

TORRES: Yeah. I mean, and I take that with pride. I - maybe it's because I was raised by a very smart, intellectual, curious and empathetic man - by my dad. And I think I'm a very sensitive person - not necessarily an overly emotional one, but one that is curious about people's interiority. And I think just - that just happens to come out in the work that I do.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. There's plenty of alpha males in the world (laughter). I think we need a little more anti-alpha.


MARTÍNEZ: That's Julio Torres. He's the writer, director and star of the new film "Problemista." Julio, thanks.

TORRES: Thank you so much.


MARTÍNEZ: One more thing - Julio wrote the "Saturday Night Live" sketches "Papyrus" and "Wells For Boys." And if you need a laugh and have some spare time today, they're so worth checking out. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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