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Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton Talk Comedy, Love Languages, and the Power of the White Witch From Narnia

Photograph: A24; Collage: Gabe Conte

“I feel like a month from now, an article is going to come out like, ‘Why you shouldn't eat vegan egg’ and ‘Why it's poisonous,’” Julio Torres tells me, as he munches on a vegan egg sandwich for breakfast. “Well, okay—I'll just enjoy it while it lasts.”

As he should—it has, after all, been a heady 24 hours for Torres. The writer, actor and now director meets me on a Zoom call the morning after his A24 film Problemista, an absurdist comedy about creative work and immigration, finally had its premiere in New York. Surrounded by family, friends and collaborators—in his world, there is often overlap among those three—Torres says it almost felt like a wedding. “It just felt joyous and like a celebration of a community effort—and by the effort, I don't just mean the movie, I mean my life,” he says.

In some ways, the night was the culmination of this first part of Torres’ creative life. After three years cutting his teeth as a writer on Saturday Night Live, picking up several Emmy nominations on the way, he left that comedy institution in 2019 and resurfaced as a comedy star in his own right with his first HBO comedy special My Favorite Shapes. In the same year, he revealed himself to be a multitalented powerhouse by creating, co-showrunning, co-writing and acting in the short-lived but beloved Los Espookys, a Spanish-language HBO series about a band of merry weirdos who turn their love of horror into an agency specializing in fake supernatural events.

In Problemista, his directorial debut, he plays an aspiring toy designer who races against the clock of his work visa expiration, while assisting an art world eccentric (deliciously played by Tilda Swinton) in the hopes of getting sponsored.

Immigration has been the theme of many great films throughout cinematic history, from West Side Story to The Joy Luck Club. But in Problemista, Torres examines the issue through his trademark absurdist lens, finding new, often fantastical ways to tell that story. It's a film that could only have sprung from the mind of comedy's Salvadoran-born Space Prince.

A few minutes into our Zoom call, the Oscar-winning Swinton graces our chat, and the actor and her director talk to GQ about comedy, love languages, Derek Jarman, and the power of the White Witch from Narnia.

GQ: When I heard that Tilda was going to be in Problemista, the first thing I thought of was that part in Julio’s comedy special My Favorite Shapes, where he puts together a few shapes and says, That’s what Tilda Swinton's apartment would look like.

Swinton: I know that scene. Julio is going to come and stay with me in Scotland, so he's going to understand how absolutely accurate he was not. The idea that anybody would think I would live in a beautiful, clean glass space is both ludicrous and a great honor, so I'm very thrilled.

I think [Shapes] was the first thing [of Julio’s] I saw, but then I realized that I'd actually been seeing Julio's work for years on Saturday Night Live. And then, of course, Los Espookys is a huge favorite in our house.

Wow, you’re a Los Espookys fan?

Swinton: I am, absolutely. And this is going to sound a bit demanding, but when watching Los Espookys, I was longing for Julio to make a piece of work entirely [by himself]... I mean, I think I was just willing him to make Problemista, even when I was watching Los Espookys. Because you can tell he's on another planet, and there's nothing I love more than fellow aliens.

Julio—first of all, congratulations in advance on finally seeing the inside of Tilda’s living space. Hopefully we get a My Favorite Shapes sequel where you're able to describe it more accurately. How did you first come across Tilda's work? What was the first Tilda project you saw?

Torres: Oh my God, that's a very difficult question. It's just one of those things that sort of was downloaded into me very early on, like during adolescence when you start making connections and you start being like, “Oh, who is that actor? Oh, I'm watching this other movie and that person's also in it.” And then you start picking movies because of the actors, because they are sort of like a stamp of approval on the movie. Tilda was one of those actors, where it would be like, "Oh, well, she decided to be in this. It must be interesting."

I just realized which was the first one, which was a very bizarre first one to have in the Tilda canon—it’s The Beach. It was around the time when I really started discovering movies. And I didn't grow up around people who knew movies. There was this one video rental store in San Salvador that had all the weird, interesting or different movies. And I didn't really have a sophisticated understanding of anything, so I just picked movies based on the DVD covers. And all I knew about The Beach is that fans of Titanic were upset that their prince, Leonardo DiCaprio had done something so unlikable and inaccessible and difficult to watch. And that is why I thought, "This movie is probably going to be something that I love." And I love it.

Swinton: Wow, that's so interesting. I was thinking about that movie the other day, and I was thinking about the fact that Leo was 22 and [it came after] Titanic. And here's the thing, it’s pre-social media. Even pre-social media, his life was a kind of—I mean, I'm speaking for him, but—a living hell. And he was so happy to come to Thailand for six months, so he could be free of it. But that's not possible anymore now, because you would never be free of it, if you were in that zone now. In those days, it was possible to go, "I'm leaving it all behind. I'm going to Thailand, and no one will find me." And they didn't. He had a great six months.

Torres: You'd have to ask Timothee, who feels like the heir apparent to [Leo].

Swinton: Yes. Well, I wouldn't... Yes. Yeah.

Torres: But yeah, you can't escape it.

Tilda, you used the word “bizarre” earlier to describe your turn in The Beach. It kind of made me think about your filmography. On one hand there’s arthouse cinema and these kinds of interesting, auteur-driven films that you're very much identified with. But then on the other hand, you also have a lot of comedies like Trainwreck and Burn After Reading. I know you're a comedy fan—I remember a GQ interview from 2014 where you were talking about how much you loved Veep.

Swinton: Yeah, I remember there was a time—it's now quite a long time ago, I'm happy to say—when people in your position asked me, "Have you ever thought of doing comedy?" And I was so shocked. I sort of thought, "I'm always doing comedy. What are you talking about?" I think everything I do is funny. And I thought [Sally Potter's] Orlando was very funny—it is funny, right?

But somehow, I don't know, maybe it didn't compute as such. My feelings were a bit hurt when people said, "Have you ever thought of doing comedy?" Because I thought, "Well, I am doing comedy."

Torres: There's this sort of line that people draw between comedy and drama, which I also don't like. Even when you're pitching a TV show or whatever, the fact that those are different departments…

Swinton: That's awful, isn't it? I mean, it's condescending to both. It's condescending to comedy, because it implies that it's not about anything serious. And it also is very condescending to drama, because it makes it sound like it's not enjoyable. It's a bitch slap both ways.

For example, I was a big fan of Veep for that reason—because those writers are so limber. And it's hilarious, and so sophisticated and about everything. [Veep writer] Jesse Armstrong and [Veep creator] Armando Ianucci, who's a friend of mine—they're geniuses. They don't take any prisoners. They don't recognize that divide. And they are consistently very funny and consistently really serious.

And I think that's [there in] Julio, with this film. I think there is really a magical formula that is in this bottle of a film. That it is really about something, and really funny, and really magical, and really moving, all at once, all in one. It's like that beautiful moment when you're peeling an egg and that membrane comes off in one and it just goes, blah. It's like the film is its own creature. It's like blowing a really good bubble.

I was going to say—one of the things I really love about Problemista is how it shape-shifts throughout the runtime. How it's like an immigration drama, but then at one point, it's like a buddy cop comedy between the two of you—and it's so funny and so absurd—and then it hits us with emotion.

Swinton: It's convenient and fitting, because that experience of being caught in that nightmare [with immigration status], is very stop, start. Sporadic. Hilarious, nonsensical, bizarre—it's all of that. The message fits the form, as Marshall McLuhan said. A straight drama about immigration could be quite brilliant, but it might be quite inaccurate, because it might not have that sense of being destabilized and that sense of looking for the humanity and the weird.

I mean, if you are sitting in a waiting room, in a really desperate situation in a hospital or something, and there's going to be something funny happening in the waiting room, what are you supposed to do? You're going to ignore it? I mean, no, you take it in and you might even have a little chuckle, even though you're going to see your dying relation. It's life. That's what life is. It's all mixed up together. You don't get these sort of soundtracks, gloomy music over everything. It's just not like that.

Julio, I found your character's relationship with his mom in the movie so touching. You’ve talked in the past about what a genius your own mom is, and her influence on you. I remember this one Instagram post where you said, "We express love by creating together." Can you talk about that dynamic?

Torres: You know the term “love language”? Where [for some people, it’s] giving gifts or it's touch? I think that ours is creation, creativity and collaborating. And some of my happiest earliest memories are of her taking a cardboard box and her X-acto knife and making me little houses to my exact specifications. It was like, “The doors have to open like this, and the windows have to be round.”

And that is so joyous, to make something and to champion each other. And when she's making something, she's sending me pictures of the ideas and the complete product. And this is the same.

I think that in directing, I have found a way of having those relationships with many, many, many people at the same time. And that is so exciting and so thrilling that I get to have sort of what I learned with my mother, and I get to have it with actors, with set decorators, with costume people, with lighting people.

Swinton: That's beautiful what you say about your mother. I think that's really an amazing kind of direction for parents, teaching their child to collaborate, to make things together with other people. Not just, "Oh, how marvelous. What have you done, darling?" But, "Let's do it together."

My son and I—we actually still make things together—used to do that with his train set. I was his kind of scenics person. I remember once, him asking me to make a pumpkin patch, and I was so proud. We're talking about this scale, his train set. I enjoyed it so much. I was so proud of myself, and he approved of it, and I felt so seen. It was amazing. And he is now a props master, by the way.

Amazing. Tilda, I was going to say, I feel like what Julio was talking about in terms of love languages must be something you relate to. You and your daughter Honor have made two films together.

Swinton: My kids, I feel very envious of them, actually, because they've been—and this is a way of giving myself a compliment as well—brought up in an incredibly collaborative, collective environment. And so making stuff for them is just second nature, and that must really be wonderful.

And so when Julio talks about the way his mother did that for him, I think it's such a gift, such a blessing. Because it's like, that's your home bath, your lovely bubble bath that you love is making things. And I was brought up in a different environment. I wasn't brought up with artists, and I had to kind of go away and find that bubble bath elsewhere. Fortunately, I found it. I mean, some people are still looking. But yeah, I think it's really the best, making things with loved people.

Tilda, one of the things I've always admired about your work is how, as your stardom and reputation have grown, you've used that platform to help give all of these filmmakers from world cinema a bigger platform, or different viewers. I think about your work with Bong Joon-Ho or Apichatpong Weerasethakul. How do you decide to take a chance on a first time filmmaker like Julio? What are the things you look for in a director?

Swinton: A person that I admire and probably love—that's the starting point. It's where I started myself. I started in this sort of collective environment with Derek Jarman, and I've just rolled on, really.

And so for example, I met Bong Joon-Ho in Cannes. We had breakfast together. We loved each other. We worked together. And then the world finds out that Bong Joon-Ho is a genius—just as people are finding out Julio Torres is now. But these are my pals. They're my friends. They're the people I want to have breakfast with, and I should be so lucky.

But it is strange the way you put that, that I was helping people. I feel the one who's blessed, I'm the one who's so lucky. I mean, when Derek Jarman died, I took a real hit. Not only had I lost my best friend, but I also lost my way of working. And I thought, "Well, I can't..." Clearly, that was sort of a mad nine years. I made these works with him in this completely unique way, usually improvised, very often silent. Not professional, not acting, nothing like that. And we made Orlando as well in a very unique and bespoke way. I didn't feel equipped to have a career. I wasn't actually interested in having a career at all.

And it was miraculous to me that people started coming towards me and say, "Listen, it's not over yet. Why don't we do something?" And it just went on. The miracle is that I have so many families now in filmmaking. I have an established filmmaking family with Bong Joon-Ho, with Wes Anderson, with Jim Jarmusch, with Lynne Ramsay. And now I feel really a part of a family with Julio. And that's like lightning striking over and over again, which is really too much to ask, but I'm really lucky.

I guess when I said that you’d helped these filmmakers, I think about how the New York screenings of Apichatpong’s Memoria were sold out for weeks, when his earlier films, like Tropical Malady or Blissfully Yours, didn't exactly have a run like that in the US.

Swinton: There was this wonderful moment when we were in Mexico City shooting a film that I'm very proud of, Erick Zonca's Julia. And we were shooting at night, and there were all these street kids who—I don't know where they'd seen it, presumably through the windows of television shops—recognized [me as] the White Witch from [2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe], and came up to me like a flock, and they all gripped my knees. They wanted to get close, because people love that witch. They just love her. Kids are just so bright. They know that if somebody's really mean, they're adorable.

And I remember Sandro [Kopp, Swinton’s partner] saying, "Future Derek Jarman fans." And it was so great and so right.

It's a nice thought, what you say but I think people wised up about Apichatpong Weerasethakul a while ago. But there's no doubt, if there even was a fan of Doctor Strange [the Marvel film Swinton starred in with Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel McAdams] who said, "Oh, well let's go and see this film by a Thai master. I don't know him, but Tilda is in it." Great—because they get to see the great Thai master and see an extraordinary film. So that's my privilege, I would say.

Originally Appeared on GQ