Julio Torres Wants to Violate Your Dress Code

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Julio Torres is feeling zen about releasing his first feature film. Before Problemista premiered at South by Southwest in March 2023, he didn’t seem the least bit anxious, and several months later, Torres compared the experience to summoning your parents to your bedroom as a kid to show them something you’ve built. “I hope people like it, but I don’t make work with perception in mind,” he told the Cut.

Torres himself has been perceived as one of comedy’s most original talents since both his inventive special, My Favorite Shapes, and the surreal cult comedy series Los Espookys premiered on HBO in 2019. By then, he had already written memorable Saturday Night Live sketches such as “Wells for Boys” and become a welcome presence on late-night television. Still, Problemista is a major breakthrough. Torres’s waggish charm suits the story of Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador who takes a freelance gig working for an erratic art critic named Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) in hopes that she will sponsor his work visa so he can stay in New York City and land his dream job at Hasbro. Elizabeth needs help mounting an exhibit on behalf of her cryogenically frozen husband (Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA), whose gaudy paintings depict eggs in unlikely scenarios.

Problemista was originally scheduled to open in August of last year before the WGA and SAG strikes prompted A24 to postpone the film’s debut until this month. Torres spoke with the Cut just weeks before the union strikes, and while his directorial debut isn’t autobiographical, Alejandro does share some characteristics with his creator.

Is Problemista the first movie you’ve tried to get off the ground?

Yes. I knew I wanted to write something based on the experience of attempting to get a work visa and then Elizabeth’s character — the way she speaks, the way she conducts herself — was sort of floating in my head as well. I was like, Am I really about to write an immigration story? Am I really about to make a sappy movie about perseverance? Even though that feels true to my life, it doesn’t really feel artistically seductive to me. It wasn’t until I realized that Craigslist could be a person [portrayed by Larry Owens] that I was like, Now I understand how to do this. And also realizing that this isn’t just a movie about a young person overcoming all odds; it’s someone realizing that problems are beautiful and that they’re attracted to problems. It made it deeper and richer when the context of the problems unlocked itself.

When you had this vision of how Elizabeth would talk, did it take the form of Tilda? 

No, I had Elizabeth’s voice and way of speaking in my head. I had her dialogue, her grievances, her battles, her pain — but I didn’t quite know what she looked like. And then when Tilda read the script and said she wanted in, it was just so beautiful and shocking. I mean, what a dream come true. One of the most joyful things was coming up with what her hair was going to look like. We really wanted a haircut that would crash against her hair texture, like she got the wrong haircut for her hair. We came up with this story: She went to the salon and she asked for this haircut and the stylist told her, “Your hair is not going to support that,” and she was like, “Oh, you mean I can’t have it?” And every time she catches a glance of herself in the mirror, she just manically tries to assemble it into what it looked like in the magazine. I assumed that she was given four different hair products to use in a specific order but she never did that. For her to have the hair color that you see everywhere, that accidental shade of red that everyone has but no one wants, was really fun.

Did you also come up with Alejandro’s one strand of hair that’s always out of place?

Yeah, something that I do a lot that I inherited from my father, who is very Alejandro-like, is constantly twirling my hair while I’m thinking. And then it’s out of place. It made Alejandro look like a little anime character or something. It’s difficult to find an idiosyncrasy in simplicity, and Alejando is all about simplicity.

It perfectly complements the bounce in his step, which is very cartoonish. Almost like a Disney character’s. 

Yeah, I guess I imagine him just sort of exploring. Our sound mixer had the idea of “What if his steps make no sound?” I liked that. So listen carefully. You won’t hear anything. When Alejandro is going up the filing cabinets in what I call the bureaucratic limbo, we deleted those sounds.

Elizabeth’s husband paints all these garish eggs. What’s your No. 1 rule for hanging art in your home?

It has to bring me joy but also challenge the way I look at something. It has to show me something in a way that I haven’t seen before.

What is your No. 1 fashion rule?

Wear whatever you want to wear at all times. I don’t own a tux. I don’t own a suit. I don’t own a tie. I don’t believe in dress codes. If there’s a restaurant that says it has a dress code, I intentionally violate it.

What about at weddings?

I don’t like weddings. I don’t like ceremonies, and I show up wearing whatever the hell I want, if I go at all.

Has that ever backfired?

No. No one dares.

You don’t feel any kind of anxiety about breaking someone’s wedding expectations?

No, and if it’s that kind of person, I just don’t go to the wedding.

What is the No. 1 rule any toy-maker should follow?

To ask themselves, Would this bring you joy? Instead of trying to guess What might bring someone else joy?

What toy would make the best gift?

Maybe art supplies. That’s not a toy but something that would allow you to create, like a puzzle. But not a puzzle that has a clear ending.

You’re a director now, so what is your No. 1 rule on set?

Don’t hold back. Tell me what you think. And try to enjoy what you’re making.

What’s your No. 1 rule while walking on the streets of New York?

Look around you and maybe go down a street that you haven’t before.

What kind of texter are you?

Either immediate or weeks later.

Do you prefer a succession of small pings or a block of text? 

I prefer a block because that contains ideas, but I only do a block when it’s a productive text. If I’m sharing my thoughts over text or I’m sharing an idea over text, that’s a block. But when you get to emotional territory, I don’t know. Then it shouldn’t be a text. If the text is going to start with “I just feel like …,” don’t make that a text.

You have to call them?

Yeah, I think so.

Do you text first and say, “I need to call you?” Or can you cold-call?

No, I text first.

What is your top rule for meeting other famous people?

It depends, I guess, on the person. But I don’t like going out of my way to introduce myself to a famous person because what are they going to do with that? I let them come to me.

What was your first meeting with Tilda Swinton like?

It was a Zoom. It was immediately friendly. We laughed. It was just so joyous. We felt very familiar.

Problemista is kind of a mother-son story, so what would be your rule for raising a child, if you were to do that?

I am never going to do that, but I would say just figure out what makes them happy and lean into that. Meet them where they are.

What is your go-to standard for roommate etiquette?

If there are rules in the household, I’m in the wrong household. My good roommate experiences were instinctual. Like, if there’s a dish in the sink and it bothers you, wash it.

I feel like Alejandro could have maybe benefited from a few roommate rules. His roommates are a bit disruptive. 

Yeah, in retrospect, I guess so. But I think Alejandro likes meeting people where they are, and I’m the same. I really like to let people be. When people come into my home and they’re like, “Should I take my shoes off?” I say, “You do whatever you want to do.” At the end of the day, my floor being dirty matters less to me than you being comfortable. Do whatever you want to do.

Do you think it’s okay to ghost after one date?

I feel it’s okay to want to ghost. It’s okay to not want to see someone after one date, but I think being clear is preferable. You don’t owe anyone anything, but you should make the damage as small as possible.

And you don’t need a block of text for that, right?


You joked in a special a few years ago that you always start emails with “Well, well, well.” So what do you sign your emails with? 

Good luck to you” or “I hope you find peace.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julio Torres Wants to Violate Your Dress Code