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Why “Problemista” Star Tilda Swinton Comes to the U.S. ‘Less and Less’: ‘Not for the Fainthearted’ (Exclusive)

‘Problemista,’ starring Tilda Swinton and first-time director Julio Torres, pokes fun at the American immigration system — which they call a “house of cards”

<p>A24</p> Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista"

A24

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista"

Tilda Swinton finds parts of her new movie about surviving as an immigrant in America all too relatable.

“I come to America, I have to confess, less and less,” the Scottish actress, 63, admits to PEOPLE. “It's not for the fainthearted, you know.”

Swinton stars in Problemista (in theaters now), a semi-autobiographical depiction of the American dream from writer, actor and first-time director Julio Torres that’s whimsically imaginative and painfully funny, given his firsthand insights into the country’s immigration bureaucracies.

Related: Tilda Swinton Says She 'Always Felt' She Was Queer: 'I Was Just Looking for My Queer Circus'

“I felt like I was slowly building a house of cards,” Torres, 37, recalls of moving from his native El Salvador to New York City for college. “Like I was really making the foundation of something, but that I knew with every card that it could all go away very, very quickly.”

Even after becoming an Emmy-nominated Saturday Night Live writer and co-creator/star of HBO's Los Espookys, Torres admits that “precarious” feeling remains. “There's perpetually a sense of, like, ‘Am I allowed to stand here? Am I gonna get in trouble if I sit here? What rule did I break today that I didn't realize was a rule? What piece of paper did I not fill out in time that will come back to bite me?’ ”

“Getting through immigration at an airport, even with some fancy artist's visa, you are scrutinized,” agrees Swinton. “You are virtually full-body cavity searched every time you come in. There's a sort of essential assumption that you want to steal something. And that, ‘Why would you want to go back to Scotland when you can live here?’ ”

The Michael Clayton Oscar winner adds that she has “beloved friends and colleagues” in the U.S., but feels “more and more alien the more that time goes on.”

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That Problemista is led by a comedic duo born in San Salvador and London is no coincidence. Narrated by Isabella Rossellini and costarring RZA, Greta Lee, Catalina Saavedra and James Scully, the A24 hit — produced by Emma Stone and her husband Dave McCary — uses the “surreal adventure” of immigrant Alejandro (Torres) to expose the “treacherous worlds of New York City and the U.S. Immigration system,” per its synopsis. 

<p>A24</p> Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista"

A24

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista"

“As time on his work visa runs out, a job assisting an erratic art-world outcast becomes his only hope to stay in the country and realize his dream,” the synopsis continues.

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Swinton plays that art-world outcast — emphasis on “erratic” — named Elizabeth, a character Torres jokes is “very wig-first.”

Elizabeth’s bedraggled red-dyed wig, in fact, helped Swinton inhabit the frantically demanding art dealer. “All of the sort of architecture is the work for me,” she says, “They're like the nuclear codes: the hair unlocks one bit and then the potbelly unlocks another, and then her shoulder [pads.]”

<p>Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty</p> Tilda Swinton at the "Problemista" New York screening Feb. 27

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

Tilda Swinton at the "Problemista" New York screening Feb. 27

The character “doesn't really feel like she has a relationship to anybody I've played before, or even anybody that I know,” she adds. “She doesn't just enter a room, she kind of assaults the room.”

Torres chimes in, “We talked about Elizabeth coming into every room hand first. Remember?” Swinton corrects him: “Claw first!”

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For Torres, what unlocked “the engine or tone” of his feature directorial debut was casting Larry Owens as a physical embodiment of Craigslist, luring Alejandro to perform odd jobs for money. “I started imagining Craigslist as a being that one could talk to. Then I was like, ‘Oh, okay, actually this really human story will be told in the way that I know how to.’ ”

<p>A24</p> "Problemista" poster

A24

"Problemista" poster

Problemista, he says, is also “such a wonderful parade of so many friends” — including Swinton. By the time the two met during the movie’s development process, the Three Thousand Years of Longing actress counted herself among the fans of Torres’ distinctive comedy.

“Even before the conversation one can have with a potential collaborator, if you know and adore their work, you're halfway down the road,” Swinton tells PEOPLE. “I was so besotted by Julio, the landscape of his work, from the moment that I first saw it. And it just did such good things to my heart, always and still does.”

She adds, “People always talk about not meeting your heroes, but I've been very lucky; people end up being exactly as you'd hoped they would be. He's no exception.”

Problemista is in theaters now.

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