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John Cameron Mitchell on Tapping Into Trauma and Femmephobia to Play 'Tiger King' Joe Exotic in 'Joe vs. Carole'

The actor talks about becoming the Tiger King, and no, he didn't get to keep the mullet.
by Danielle Turchiano — 
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John Cameron Mitchell as Joe Exotic in 'Joe vs. Carole'

Peacock

For John Cameron Mitchell, stepping into Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage's world meant going much deeper than simply slipping on a shiny, animal-print button down, painting on tattoos, and donning a bleached blond mullet (although he did all of those things, too).

The actor, who stars in Peacock's eight-episode scripted series Joe vs. Carole opposite Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin, recalls a July 2021 Tweet from the real-life Exotic in which he negatively commented on Mitchell's casting. Having already been the subject of an extremely popular and Emmy-nominated docuseries (Netflix's Tiger King), Exotic was worried about his image when being portrayed by performers. He wrote that Mitchell "is just going to make me look like a flaming f-- ... and I'm a hard-working gay male."

"A lot of queer people in my generation were destroyed by their internalized homophobia. He has his own internalized femmephobia," Mitchell tells Metacritic. "It's just sad. He's still traumatized, and he'll never be wrong, and if you cannot admit to doing anything wrong, you will never recover."

Like Tiger King before it, Joe vs. Carole explores the personal history that made both Exotic and Baskin turn to big cats, with Exotic running a zoo and Baskin running a sanctuary and both of them coming to blows over how the other treated their animals, the people around them, and their businesses. It dramatizes a story many audience members previously watched unfold through talking heads in the documentary, but by recreating events in a narrative way, Mitchell feels Joe vs. Carole provides more nuance into who the characters are and why.

Exotic is a zoo owner, a musician, and a one-time political hopeful who lost his first husband to AIDS and later held a three-partner wedding ceremony. He is also a convicted felon, currently in prison on 17 federal charges of animal abuse and two counts of attempted murder for hire in a plot to have Baskin killed.

There is a lot that is sensational about Exotic, but digging into the roots of his trauma and his complex psychology was more interesting to Mitchell, who is gay, only a few weeks younger than the real Exotic, and also spent part of his childhood in Texas and in Kansas, as Exotic did.

"I knew the pressures, I knew the homophobia, I knew the macho vibe — but I also knew the warmth and homeyness and the American, do-it-yourself thing that one person would make into a zoo and another would make into a punk rock band," Mitchell explains. "That's why I think he became a real folk hero, anti- or not. He came from very basic beginnings to make a kingdom. Unfortunately his paranoia got the better of him, and he destroyed himself and others, but I did find him weirdly admirable to be that openly gay in a hostile place and to be that accepted on his own terms."

Here, Mitchell talks with Metacritic about connecting with the character in unexpected ways, penning a song in his voice for him, and the hair and makeup process to more fully transform.

How much did you want to research Joe beyond the scripts, and how much of becoming him was done for you simply by the hair and makeup process?

Of course I immersed myself. I watched every video. And he had different voices for different occasions — large audiences, for the camera, for his lovers. And he changed his accent all the time, too, because he lived in different places. He could get very Oklahoma, but he could also be more generically Kansas, which is much less twangy. He was a showman as much as I am, as much as [my previous character] Hedwig is. I wore big, blond wigs for both of them, and they had a lot more in common with each other than I expected, and even with me. 

But my instinct was to make it 60-percent Joe and the rest my own interpretation, and that's what we did. That's what Kate did, too. We're not doing impersonations — we're not doing Saturday Night Live — we're plying real people, and sometimes you can get caught up in, "I should be fatter" or "I'm getting a nose." It distracts, and it also can limit you because you're like, "I have to keep twitching, so I can't remember what I'm feeling." So, for me, I had to let go of an exact replica to feel the emotions that were his.

How long did you have to sit in the hair and makeup chair every day in order to get the mullet, facial hair, and tattoos applied?

It really wasn't that hard. The tattoos go on pretty fast, and they would last a couple days, so I would just not do the tattoos if I had my long sleeve shirts on. It was the makeup — the extra mustache-y stuff, the side pieces, the mullet. I could really get myself together, on a normal day, in an hour. I wasn't wearing prosthetics. I think when I was in jail, I had a little bit of crinkly around the eyes, but mostly we decided not to go for major noses or things because those can get in the way of your acting.

Did you get to keep the mullet wig?

I tried to, but it was too expensive; they wouldn't give it to me. I don't know what they're going to do with it.

Well, Joe did say he was "back" in the very last shot of the show, so maybe a surprise second season?

You never know.

A minute ago you mentioned that you had more in common with Joe than you expected. What part of this story cracked open who he really is to you?

There's a scene where his [first] husband dies of AIDS. In real life, he actually was trying to bring him home in his truck from the hospital and he died in the parking lot, and the hospital didn't let him bring back in because he was dead. So, he had to sit with the body for hours until the funeral home came, and I think of him still sitting in that the cab of truck. I had a line where I said to Travis, "I feel like I'm still sitting there." He's still there. No one's there to help, and he's living with a corpse, and death dogs him.  The scene where I mourn my husband after he's gone in the hospital bed, the director just put a couple of cameras on me and just said, "Go," and it was one take. It just all erupted. I had lost a long-term boyfriend in 2004, and that just came up. I do understand; I just reacted differently to the trauma.

While the show doesn't discount the poor living and working conditions at Exotic's zoo, his part of the story, in addition to his feud with Carole, focuses heavily on his deep need to be loved — by the public and by the young men he brought to the zoo and arguably groomed. There was a lot of criminal things happening, as we now know, but by following the emotional journey this way, the show seems to paint him more as a tragic figure.

I actually wrote a song as him and for him called "

." It's him singing to Travis in the great beyond, and he says, "Sometimes I feel like death is dogging me, everybody I know has fallen — fallen around me. Sometimes I wake and reach for you, but you're not there, there is only air. I want to lay me back down." And so, it's like this loss, this trauma is his constant companion. And he rises above it and is a lot of fun, but then he lashes out [and] at the wrong people because he sees enemies everywhere, as people can, who have been traumatized.

The series does cover Joe's arrest and incarceration, but at the very end he does get a second wind, so to speak, because of his newfound popularity after the docuseries comes out. How intentional of a statement did you want to make regarding whether he has learned anything? 

He certainly hasn't. You can watch any of his Tweets, though I don't know how the hell he gets them out there. He says he hasn't watched the docuseries, who knows if that's true? So, I don't know if he'll see this. Of course, if I were him, I would do everything I could to see it, and I'm sure he's a celebrity in the jail. No one's raping him; he's too famous to be raped — and too old. But he's also saying he has a health problem problem with prostate cancer, and he said that in the past, and it wasn't really true, so it's very hard to figure out what's going on for real. But I don't think he has learned anything. I read his memoir that came out in November, and he still doesn't admit to doing anything wrong. And no one does nothing wrong.

Joe vs. Carole streams all episodes March 3

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Get to know John Cameron Mitchell
Perhaps best known for Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Metascore: 85), Mitchell has also recently appeared on Girls (80), The Good Fight (80), and Shrill (74), and will next be seen in The Sandman.