Ian Chillag of Everything Is Alive on Interviewing Inanimate Objects
He’s figured out how to make the inner life of a lamppost something everybody wants to hear about.
Earlier this year, Ian Chillag was scrolling through his phone and came across something he’d tapped into his notes app six years ago. He’d completely forgotten about it, and what he read both shocked and tickled him: “Found myself getting sad about the fact [that] the food was alone in the dark in the fridge.”
“So maybe I was thinking about inanimate objects way back then,” he says.
Today, Chillag’s life is all about non-living things. The 40-year-old New Yorker interviews them for his podcast Everything Is Alive, working with improv actors who take on the roles of, say, a lamppost, a pregnancy test, a grain of sand, a can of off-brand cola, or a set of Russian dolls.
While interviewing inanimate objects might seem like a daunting task, Chillag was lucky to learn from the best. The longtime NPR producer got his first break in his early twenties at Fresh Air, working for Terry Gross, one of the best interviewers in the business. Here, he explains how he makes this concept work.
Spotify for Podcasters: Working on Fresh Air would have given you intimate access to seeing Terry Gross work, which I would imagine was an excellent education in the interview process. What did you learn?
Ian Chillag: I learned a lot, mostly in ways that I didn’t realize at the time. I think there’s something to being curious. It’s something we do naturally when we’re kids, but Terry is someone who still asks those questions. Early on in my time there someone had written a book about blood, and Terry asked “What’s in blood?” She’s just so curious. She doesn’t accept things on face value. She asks the curious questions. She’s not afraid of that.
Everything Is Alive is such an original idea. Do you remember the moment you came up with it?
A little more than a year before I started making the podcast, I remember texting my wife and saying, “What about a show where I talk to things?” She texted back: “I want to hear more about this.” It’s always been a way I’ve joked around, just personifying things around me. As a producer at NPR, someone was doing a story about Elon Musk’s new tunnel, and we had to find an expert on building tunnels to interview. And I was thinking: “Why not interview a tunnel?”
What happens before you hit record? How much do you and the actor plan things?
Very little is planned. We get on the phone for around twenty minutes. Usually I don’t know them. We’ll talk about how being the thing they are would inform their personality. With the can of cola, in that preliminary conversation Louis [Kornfeld] was saying things like, “I bet I’m going to be kind of anxious and I’m going to be on the shelf for a long time because people are always going to be choosing the brand sodas instead of me. So I’ll have a lot of time to watch the world go by.” Maeve [Higgins], who played the lamppost, said, “I bet I can see into apartments.” That was the seed of her story right there. We chat a little bit, but then I cut it off and I like them to go and think a bit about it for a couple of days. Then they come in and it really feels like an interview to me. It just feels natural.
Have actors revealed to you how much research they do trying to inhabit the object and prepare for the show?
I’m very deliberate in asking them to do no research. Early on I learned that some of them were doing their own research and it doesn’t work. I don’t want trivia or basic facts or a lot of history. That would make the show like edutainment. I want to know about how the object feels and I want to know about their lives.
What objects do you still want to interview?
I like to go against type. I really want to do a rainbow at some point and I want the rainbow to have the lowest, most dour voice. I’d like to interview the rock that was the first wheel, who is still somewhere in the world and has observed the thousands of years of human progress. I’d like to do a gun. I feel like I have to wait until I do the show well enough that I can do it right. The show works better when things like what they are. The gun has to like being a gun, but how am I going to do that considering the way I feel about guns and the way people who have experienced guns feel about them? And I think the final episode of the show will be an ice cube played by Ice Cube. If I can pull that off, I’ll retire the show, because what can I do after that?