Julio Torres Is His Own Thing

Julio Torres Is His Own Thing

Julio Torres has never had a credit card. He doesn’t even have a credit score, he said, and doesn’t want one, even though trying to rent an apartment is hellish without it.

“I don’t want to do a symbolical gesture to bow down to the system so that I can have a home,” he said.

Torres’s new HBO show, “Fantasmas,” reflects his contempt for the bureaucracy of modern life. It is ostensibly about his character Julio’s mission to find a lost golden oyster earring, but he is stymied every step of the way by technology, systems and corporations. A form of ID called “proof of existence” is required to do pretty much anything, but Julio is as defiant as the man who plays him. “I’m different,” he says in the show. “I’m my own thing. I’m the exception. So no, I don’t need proof of existence.”

Torres, who also created, wrote and directed the series, described it as “free, roaming, surreal, but grounded in human emotion and very curious.” Julio’s quest frequently detours into absurd comedic vignettes featuring actors including Emma Stone, Steve Buscemi, Dylan O’Brien, Rosie Perez and Aidy Bryant.

On the whole, however, the show is a shade darker than previous work like “Problemista,” Torres’s feature directorial debut, from earlier this year, about a toy designer from El Salvador racing to renew his work visa before it expires. A former writer for “Saturday Night Live,” Torres released an HBO comedy special, “My Favorite Shapes,” in 2019. The same year, he cocreated and starred in the Spanglish comedy series “Los Espookys,” also on HBO.

In late May, Torres sat down in his office in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn to discuss turning the tangible into the abstract and why representation onscreen must come from an honest place. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

There are many vignettes in “Fantasmas,” but the show also has a cohesive through-line. Which came first, the vignettes or the narrative arc?

A lot of the ideas of the vignettes I’ve had for many, many years; a lot of them are new. Then in thinking about the show as a whole, I intentionally decided that it should have a narrative arc that would guide us. That narrative arc, it always included the little oyster, but then it kept changing and changing. Looking at the themes of the sum total of the vignettes informed what the narrative arc was. And that is where I really relied on the opinions and ideas of other collaborators. That’s where I felt like I needed a bit of a think tank to make it make sense.

I am definitely the kind of writer who really benefits from sounding boards and editors, like the Tim Gunn to my “Project Runway” contestants. I need script therapists to be like, “It seems like what you’re saying is this.” And then it’s like: “How about it’s not your credit score, but something a little more global that we come up with? Proof of existence.”

What does “proof of existence” mean to you?

I think it represents any system that phases out those who have less, and that those who are able to be in it don’t really question it. Which I think is what a credit score is, or immigration and whatnot. The difference is that everyone in this world [of “Fantasmas”] succumbs to that.

More than being interested in immigration or credit scores or whatever, to me it’s the global bureaucracy. And in talking about this through-line, at one point I was considering having it be that my character was just getting priced out of the apartment, and that it was about trying to find an affordable apartment.

But then my friend Neha [a producer of the show, Neha Simon] was like: “No one wants to see you worry about money. That’s not the thing; it’s more of a principle thing.” So that’s where my credit score allergy came to play, just creating a world where everyone has this thing and no one questions it. And I think it’s more about being like: “Oh, I don’t want to be part of that world. I am actively rejecting being a part of that.”

This show feels more mature than something like “Problemista.”

“Problemista” is very round. It’s softer, I think. This has definitely more teeth.

Did you work specifically in that direction, or was it more organic?

Very organic. I think that in “Problemista,” I lean into my most go-getting optimist, and in “Fantasmas,” I lean into frustration, which is, I guess, a more adult feeling.

Did making “Fantasmas” feel cathartic at all?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I released any of those emotions in the creating of the show. I expressed them.

I have described it as “Black Mirror”-adjacent, but I don’t know if that’s quite right.

But I know what you mean because it is also a show preoccupied with the way that technology alienates us from each other, and the way that we also interact with each other via technology. That’s something I’m very interested in. That is science fiction at its best, when it’s commenting on a collective anxiety.

The show also displays a palpable frustration with the bureaucracy of everyday life.

I feel like I’m constantly tangled in some kind of bureaucratic web and constantly making the tangible philosophical. Constantly trying to win philosophical battles and turn things into disputes about ideas rather than realities. I don’t want to just talk about the thing; I want to talk about why the thing exists. I think some solace would come in at least getting the enforcers of bureaucracy to agree that it’s ridiculous.

In the show, you also seem frustrated with the idea of onscreen representation as a solution in and of itself. For example, when Julio’s agent tells him a studio wants him to play “the first queer, 5-foot-8 Latinx superhero on a straight-to-streaming series,” he hates the idea.

I don’t reject the conceit of people being able to relate to what they see. I think that is a very human thing we all do. I just think that relatability is not completely cosmetic. It’s not just that the person literally looks like you; there has to be something about the portrayal and the experiences there that are actually informed by reality. And [representation] is not the end-all, be-all of progress.

Where do you stand on representation as a concept? Is it completely pointless?

No, not if it’s actually rooted in genuine curiosity for the people being represented and genuine interest for those experiences. And if we don’t think that in itself is the solution to everything. Because you need to question the systems that oppress people, not just show them. Otherwise, it’s just cosmetic.

Dylan O’Brien’s character, Dustin, has this line: “I should help, because why else am I an artist if not to make the world a better place?” What do you think is the purpose of being an artist?

I think all artists have different purposes, so I don’t think there’s a global answer for that. My time is better spent showing people things in a new way, or showing people things they have seen before but in a way they hadn’t thought about before. To me, if it’s too much like something that already happened, don’t do it. I think that every piece should operate in its own language.

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