Veteran actor plays an immigration lawyer

March 25, 2024 11:46 am

[Source: CNN Entertainment]

A lawyer stares across his desk and gives his client a dire warning.

“You have a month to find someone to cosign your visa,” he says. “If you don’t, you have to leave the US.”

It’s another bleak day at Khalil Immigration Law, where people losing their cases vanish into thin air, and even a gold plaque on the waiting room wall promises to make no promises, featuring a motto that tepidly declares, “We’ll do what we can!”

Article continues after advertisement

If that sounds absurd, it should. The law office is one of many deliberately strange places viewers of the new film “Problemista” will see as they follow protagonist Alejandro’s desperate quest to stay in the United States and achieve his dreams.

In this scene early in the movie, which stars writer-director Julio Torres and released in theaters nationwide Friday, Mr. Khalil is pushing Torres’ Alejandro to come up with a solution — and fast. Could a woman Alejandro has just met become his sponsor?

“I mean, we’ll see,” Alejandro says with a shrug.

Khalil, played by Laith Nakli, perks up and races to scribble on his notepad. Has the lawyer come up with an exciting new legal strategy or an idea that cracks the case? Not at all.

“We’ll see,” Khalil repeats with a smile, sweeping his hand through the air as he envisions the phrase on a new waiting room plaque. “That’s a much better motto for us.”

It’s one of the many humorous moments punctuating “Problemista,” a film that highlights the uncertainties of the US immigration system — and the surreal twists and turns faced by people trying to navigate it.

Alejandro pushes forward against the odds, and despite the crazed whims of a boss (art critic Elizabeth Asencio, played by Tilda Swinton) whose default setting is shouting and picking fights with everyone around her.

For Torres, it’s a fictional story — but a personal one, too.

“I’ve been living with these feelings for so long. It just makes sense that they poured out in a movie,” he told CNN in a recent interview. The former “SNL” writer came to the US from El Salvador as a college student. And he can still remember the panic he felt when trying to land a job and switch from a student visa to a work visa after graduation. “I would wake up and my heart was already racing,” he says.

Long before taking on the part of “Problemista’s” well-meaning but ineffective immigration lawyer, Nakli says he also knew that feeling of dread all too well. Off-screen, he sees his own journey in Alejandro’s story. And as he helps promote the film, he’s speaking out about a side of himself that few people have seen.

For years shame stopped him from talking about his past

For years, Nakli has only talked about it with his closest friends. But he says he feels it constantly.

“I call it the dark cloud that follows me everywhere,” he tells CNN in a Zoom interview from his New York apartment.

It’s been more than 30 years since the UK-born Nakli came to the United States from Damascus, Syria. And it’s been more than 20 years since a 1998 arrest in New York on federal charges threw his life into turmoil and eventually landed him in deportation proceedings.

Back then, he was a champion bodybuilder who’d started training in the US and gone on to win the title of “Mr. Syria.”

In 2000, shortly before the criminal case was set to head to trial, Nakli pleaded guilty to four counts of conspiracy to possess and distribute controlled substances. At the time, he told the judge that he was working as a bodybuilder and personal trainer when out of loyalty he agreed to serve as a courier for a good friend.

The steroids inside the black garbage bags he hauled across the city in his Jeep were never explicitly discussed, according to Nakli’s testimony. But, Nakli said as he pleaded guilty, “deep in my heart, I knew what I was going to pick up.”

Later that year, he was sentenced to three years’ probation, community service and a $3,000 fine. In court that day, he apologized for his conduct and vowed it would never happen again.

“I love America. So when I got in trouble, it was the most horrific thing that I’ve ever felt, because I felt like I messed up, and I betrayed this trust and this country that welcomed me, that open opened its arms … to embrace me, and gave me a chance to do whatever I want to do,” Nakli says.

Nakli left his bodybuilding career behind and turned to acting, something he’d dreamed of pursuing ever since he was a kid watching “King Kong.”

As his acting career blossomed, his legal issues followed him. But as he appeared in films like “The Visitor” and “The Wall,” or in TV shows like “Ramy,” “Ms. Marvel” or “Madame Secretary,” many didn’t know about his private battles. Nakli says shame stopped him from sharing his story with all but his closest confidants for years.

The crime could have led to his deportation. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s case against him was administratively closed in 2013 under the Obama administration’s prosecutorial discretion policy. While that decision brought him some relief and allows him to live legally in the US, Nakli says the cloud over his head has remained. Any misstep — or a change in political winds — could lead to the case getting reopened.

For 25 years, he hasn’t been able to travel outside the country. That’s kept him from visiting his ailing father, and it’s forced him to turn down acting jobs for projects shooting internationally. He’s avoided personal relationships, afraid of what might happen if he’s deported.

And every year, as he goes to renew his temporary green card, he fears everything he’s built will slip away.

“Every morning, I wake up — every action of every day, every conversation I have, it’s in the back of my head,” Nakli says.

And through it all, Nakli says he’s become intimately familiar with the tense waiting room scenes that Alejandro’s character goes through in “Problemista” — albeit without the surreal touch of someone vanishing into thin air once the last grain of sand slips through an hourglass with their name on it.

“You can hear a pin drop, but it’s not because of the ‘no phones’ (rules). You can look at the people’s faces. And you see horror and fear,” he says. “It’s like the scariest thing when you go in there.”

Nakli didn’t reveal the parallels between his life and the movie’s plot when he auditioned for the “Problemista” part. But he says once the film was in production it came up quickly in a conversation with Torres.

“The moment we had an opportunity to sit down after we did the first scene (in the immigration law office), and then we sat and talked a little bit…I just told him. And I think he was like, ‘Whoa.’ Nobody expects that,” Nakli recalls.

In 2022, an attorney for Nakli filed an official request for a presidential pardon. If the clemency application is granted, Nakli says it would clear the way for him to become a US citizen and dramatically change his life.

There’s no doubt Nakli’s push to get a pardon adds a layer of irony to his portrayal of an immigration lawyer in the film. Torres says it also highlights a unique situation many immigrants face.

“In Laith’s case, it’s like, if you were American, this would never come up. … Something that happened in the ’90s? No, you’d probably never think about it,” Torres said at a recent event discussing the film with the Texas-based immigrant advocacy organization RAICES. “But because the system is so unforgiving, there’s just no moving away from it. … That pressure is just completely unfair.”

His film depicts an impossible maze of bureaucracy. He’s been inside it before

Critics have called “Problemista” a “trippy” and “inventive” film that draws viewers in with “charming silliness” and a “marvelous mixture of surrealism and social satire.”

Even at their most whimsical, in some ways, the film’s magical realist touches aren’t far off from the reality of the US immigration system, where Kafkaesque absurdities abound. In real life, many records are kept on paper and locked underground in limestone caves. It can take decades for someone to immigrate legally. Some new arrivals face criticism for failing to support themselves, even though the government hasn’t given them permission to work legally.

“One of the original titles I considered for the film was ‘Snakes and Ladders,’” Torres says. “Because that’s really what it feels like. It’s like, ‘Oh, you got far, but, oh, now you’re back to Square One.’ It felt all-encompassing, which I think is relatable to people who haven’t been through any sort of immigration problem. It’s a state of being, almost…(like) people navigating the insurance system. … It’s a mess.”

Like Alejandro, Torres says when he was trying to get a work visa and searching for a way to pay for it, he was forced to turn to the gig economy and Craigslist (personified in several surreal scenes of the film by Larry Owens).

Torres says the “absurdity” of that time is something he remembers vividly. And it’s depicted in one particularly telling scene of “Problemista.” The film’s narrator, voiced by Isabella Rosselini, outlines the complexities of Alejandro’s predicament as he’s shown on-screen crawling through a seemingly infinite staircase made up of stark rooms filled with file cabinets:

The rules of the game are as follows: First, you must find a sponsor for a work visa. Then, you must submit it by paying application and lawyer fees totaling up to around $6,000 dollars. And only then is Alejandro allowed to earn money — money that he needs so he can submit his application to well, earn money. And he must do it before the fall of the last grain of sand. The maze is impossible to navigate. Unless, of course, he’s willing to bend the rules.

While the memorable maze scene echoes the “Snakes and Ladders” title Torres once considered, in the end, he picked a different name for the film. “Problemista,” he says, is a made-up word that he defines as “someone who thrives in problems or creates art from problems.”

“The movie isn’t a documentary that dismantles and is an indictment of the immigration system,” he says. “The movie is just a story about a very specific person going through a very specific thing.”

Alejandro is a problemista. And Torres says he is, too.

He’s hoping a presidential pardon will give him a fresh start
But as another fellow problemista starring in “Problemista,” Nakli says Torres’ ways of portraying how it feels to navigate the immigration system are nothing short of a revelation.

“He really captured the immigrant experience and what it’s like,” Nakli says.

The cloud Nakli feels every day wasn’t literally depicted on-screen, but Nakli says he saw it clearly hovering over Alejandro’s every move.

“You might as well have had a CGI cloud just following him everywhere. Because that’s what it’s like. Your imaginary friend becomes this cloud,” Nakli says. “And you don’t know this cloud, what is it going to produce? Is the sun going to seep through it at the end? Or is it going to hail? Is it going to be a storm? You don’t know.”

For his part, Nakli sees a ray of hope in his pardon request. A Justice Department website lists it among thousands of pending applications. There’s no indication of when a decision could come.

Nakli’s application, which the actor shared with CNN, points out that at sentencing the judge described him as a “minor participant” in the offense, and that Nakli has taken significant steps to rehabilitate since his conviction.

The application includes numerous letters of support from fellow actors and others who say knowing him changed their lives.

Ramy Youssef, the Golden Globe-winning creator and star of Hulu’s “Ramy,” praises Nakli’s “inspirational talent.” In his letter supporting Nakli’s pardon application, he writes that Nakli once gave him a camera and helped him get a scholarship for acting classes that were instrumental in the way his career took shape.

“The way Laith has helped me is the way he helps everyone he meets. There are many people in New York, and around the world, who have a story about how Laith helped them. Making introductions, lending people money, housing someone in between places — Laith is that kind of person,” Youssef writes. “He’s been a huge part of so many people’s personal lives, and careers.”

A former Secret Service agent who met Nakli in acting school points out that Nakli already served his sentence for the crimes he committed and doesn’t deserve to be punished indefinitely.

And Nakli notes that the DEA agents who arrested him and the judge who sentenced him likely saved his life.

“Had I remained a bodybuilder, the dangerous lifestyle would have eventually killed me,” he writes.

Nakli says the story he was once ashamed of revealing now is one he wants to share. He’s written it into a one-man show about his life. And he’s been speaking about it with reporters and others as he promotes “Problemista.”

“I’m at a point where I’m very open about it,” he said at the recent RAICES event. “Yes, I made a mistake. I broke the law and I paid the price for it. And I’ve been doing everything right ever since.”

Second chances, he says, are also a vital part of the America he’s come to know and love. And he hopes his pardon application will give him the chance for a new start.

“I answer every call that I get, even if I don’t know the number, because I don’t know if it’s going to be (the one),” he says.

But Nakli says he’s emotionally prepared for any outcome.

And there’s one key difference between him and the ghostly figures of rejected immigrants in “Problemista.”

The actor who’s made his mark in dozens of TV and film roles will not disappear.

CNN’s Julie In and Hayley Wilson contributed to this report.