If you’ve heard of Cecil Baldwin, then you’ve probably heard him, too. An out, HIV-positive actor and activist, he is most famous for playing the narrator of Welcome to Night Vale, one of the first fictional podcast successes with well over 100 million downloads. The show is launching a new European tour in September that will cover seven countries, and it will tour New Zealand and Australia in January 2018. I recently spoke to the robust-voiced Baldwin about being gay and sounding straight, voice-acting, queering characters, and the unique affordances of the podcast genre.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kyle Stevens: Welcome to Night Vale is one of the most popular podcasts around. At what point did you come aboard?
Cecil Baldwin: I was working here in the East Village with the Neo Futurists. I met Joseph Fink through one of their workshops. Joseph was a writer who was working on trying to get his work out there. He had also tried self-publishing, and that ended up with boxes of books with no one to buy them. So he figured, “Well, what if I take my short stories and make them into a podcast?” and had this idea to do a radio show, a fictional radio show, not This American Life, which was nonfiction, not Marc Maron, which was sort of the template of 75 percent of podcasts at the time: people talking, interview-style, or nonfictional storytelling. Even Serial came much later.
Joseph wrote and said, “I need this radio announcer voice, and you have that voice.” So I recorded the first episode, sent it back to Joseph, and he was like, “Great, let’s just do this!” I was a freelance artist trying to hustle, and it seemed like an easy gig. It was like 3–4 hours of work every month, and it didn’t seem that hard. I recorded at home, which at that point was a tiny little apartment with my boyfriend in Harlem, and it was noisy and hot. But I literally just used a $35 microphone and Garage Band, so it’s not like it was cost-prohibitive. Which, you know, was good.
It sounds like your queerness wasn’t an issue in your casting originally. Were you involved in the decision to make Cecil the narrator queer?
Passively. I mean, Joseph and Jeffrey [Cranor] write the show. The only thing I have control over is my performance. Because I self-direct on Night Vale, if I see something that’s like “oh wow, this character I’m playing is describing this other male character with a very, you know, kind of literary beauty,” I was like “oh, this can really easily become queer.”
Well early on, the male character that the narrator constantly describes as having “perfect hair” …
Yeah, exactly. All of a sudden this physical appearance gets so much attention that I was like “ well this sounds like a queer relationship to me.” So I just played it like that. And I think they picked up on that and were like “oh maybe there is something to it,” and then began writing it in the show. So, did I decide that this was to be a queer relationship? I did in my own head, but it didn’t become canonically queer until the writers were like “we’re going to make it that.”
Night Vale is often labeled surrealist. When I think of surrealism, I think of how it undermines our ability to logically comprehend everything that’s happening, which Night Vale so often does. Obviously Night Vale is verbal, and there is a lot of wordplay: puns that reveal how fragile language is, how it doesn’t always make sense. But are there other aesthetic legacies you see it in line with?
It lives in the same library as Lovecraft, Steven King, David Lynch, down to Salman Rushdie, or magical realism. It lives in those places. But Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks are all about societies that seem normal on the outside, but once you peel away the top layer it’s very scary and messy and magical—very primeval forces. I think the difference is that Night Vale wears that on its sleeve, and then it’s kind of reversed: It wears its weirdness on the outside.
This is a larger question, but obviously we live in a culture that’s highly visual and cinema and television are celebrated as visual media, even though television was always more verbal. You were supposed to be able to do the ironing, or go get a snack, and still follow along. But the shows that are considered the best are often praised for being more visual, not relaying on dialogue—like Mad Men, or even Twin Peaks. Is there a kind of a flip side? Can podcasts do something unique by not being visual media?
Oh sure. Again, when you’re talking about disenfranchised voices, it’s really amazing. When Night Vale was first blowing up, the internet was all over it. Fan art was one of the first things that contributed to Night Vale becoming so popular. With only a voice to go on, people would start drawing a character who is completely not described, and it would become a kind of groupthink experiment. Someone draws a character one way—let’s say like Tim Gunn, blonde, square-jawed—because that’s what this voice conjured in their head; that’s what the level of vocabulary or—*
Articulateness! Because there are references to Pulitzer Prize–winning authors, this is what they imagine: blonde, dapper, bow tie, that sort of thing. But then there was an interesting point of view where people were drawing Cecil as a person of color, as Native American, black, Asian, everything. And so we began to lament the fact that so many others defaulted to white. Why do we hear “respectable, intelligent, articulate” and think “white blond man,” you know? And so there was an interesting conversation about that—a tempest in a Tumblr teapot. But “POC Cecil” became like a hashtag. And still the No. 1 question that people ask me on Twitter or in person at conventions is “What does Cecil look like?” And I’m like, “Why do you need my opinion on this? What do you think he looks like? Well that’s what he looks like.” Here’s the thing, we’re talking about ambiguity in your art, and people don’t like ambiguity in art because it means that they have to do work, you know?
Did you always want to be a voice actor?
You know, I feel like in a lot of ways I didn’t necessarily want to be a voice actor, but it was thrust upon me—like when I was ten years old I had the deepest voice in class. I also share a name with my father, so people would call our house asking to speak to Cecil, and I would be like “Hello?” and they would just assume I was an adult. But it got to the point, especially when I was in college, that everyone said “oh you must be a voice actor, right? Listen to that voice, it’s so great!” But the practicality of that is a very different thing. When I got to New York, I found a commercial agent, got head shots, and did all the things that good little actors do when they get to New York City, and one of the commercial agents was like “Oh you should definitely do voice acting, oh my god, just go get the demo made!” So I found this professional who had been working in New York for decades and who had a house in New Jersey that his voice over career built. I thought, “Oh my God, it can be done!” This guy just had pages and pages of copy and this was what he did all day. But I’ve also found that it’s really hard because everyone has the capacity to speak, and therefore anybody could potentially do voice-over work …
Well, maybe not. When I was a teen, people called me “ma’am” when I answered the phone.
Sure, well you know what—what’s ironic about this, I was born like, 30 years too late. What people respond to about my voice is this sort of witty newscaster gravitas, which is so not the trend in advertising now. Like I would have been the brand for Lucky Cigarettes in the ’60s, but now we’ve learned to mistrust that sound. I read this interesting article about the sort of the things that “the greatest generation” held in high esteem: hard handshake, look a man in the eye, tell him the truth, don’t let emotions cloud your judgment—
Be the most patriarchal …
—Be the most patriarchal. Be reserved. Be the distant father. That’s the opposite of what people are looking for now, so I found when I got to New York. They were like “For this pizza commercial we’re looking for a Seth Rogen voice, we’re looking for a Paul Rudd voice, we’re looking for a Jesse Eisenberg voice.” They don’t want the patriarchal radio announcer’s “I’m going to tell you why you should buy this product” dulcet tone. They want “Hey I’m your best friend, you should get this pizza!”
Do you think that this idea that you have this somehow stereotypically patriarchal, old-fashioned masculine voice is at all in tension with your willingness to be an out gay actor?
Yes, I think so. You know I went to school in East Tennessee, a middle-classy kind of environment. As far as I knew I was the only out gay kid at my high school. I came out when I was 16. And honestly, the people that were meanest to me about it—I mean, sure, I got called faggot a couple times by the jocks, but it was always kind of half-hearted—but the people that were meanest to me were the guys that were obviously gay but had a more femme voice and mannerisms. They were the meanest to me because I could pass if I wanted. I feel like there’s a lot of stratification in the gay world. Some of my best friends are faggots [laughs]—all of my best friends are faggots, and I love them. But it was difficult in high school because I was like “No, I’m gay,” but I wasn’t getting the negative attention from the straight world that they were. So I’m sure that my decision to come out seemed much easier in their eyes.
I think voices are an underdiscussed aspect of queer detection. Sure all kinds of gestures and mannerisms matter, but it’s the voice that cements it for people, in my own experience. I wonder if that’s related to why everyone would rather text than call these days. The voice gives so much away right?
You remember when Instagram started their whole pseudo-Snapchat thing? There are all these beautiful models that you follow on Instagram, and you’re like “oh my god, what man candy.” And then all of a sudden you hear them speak and you’re like “No, no, shhh, you were much better when I didn’t have to hear you.” And that has nothing to do with being masc or femme, it has more to do with the image in my head of you as an image. Now that I hear you, the image has completely changed.
Tell me about your decision to come out as HIV-positive.
I found I was HIV-positive when I moved to NYC and was led to the Neofuturists, and I felt like I owed it to this theater company to be honest about my status. There, I wrote several little pieces about being positive talking about the day-to-day life of what it’s like to have this virus. With a couple of guys I called my “gay uncles,” we used to end shows by asking if anyone knows someone who is HIV-positive. Only one or two people would raise their hands usually, so we would then walk out into the audience and start shaking hands saying “now you do.”
As for announcing my status in a bigger way, well, look I’m not much of a social media guy. But social media is a tool, and I realized I could use it. Actually, when I got Twitter, they shut me down on the first day. They thought I was a bot for getting so many followers. Once I started to understand my own limits for social media, the HIV question was always the biggest one. My friends would advise me to come out as HIV-positive as long as I knew my reasons for doing so.
What were those reasons?
For me, it was about the fact that the majority of Night Vale’s fan base are younger and female-identified. I find that this generation is struggling with LGBTQ history, and it’s become so normal to have the cycle of outrage where everyone is crazy angry about something and then forgets it two days later. The HIV/AIDS story was falling behind. Millenials and post-millenials don’t have a lot of reference for what living with HIV was, and is. I wanted to be a more-or-less benign figure that proves that the days of the AIDS crisis have passed. Science has caught up, and it’s no longer about comforting the dying. It’s about treating those people who are living with HIV humanely.
*Correction, Aug. 30, 2017: This post originally misspelled Tim Gunn’s last name.