Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator-star and certified queer icon John Cameron Mitchell might be allergic to cats, but that didn’t prevent him from auditioning (his first in 27 years) to portray the controversial figure Joe Maldonado-Passage, better known as the Tiger King, Joe Exotic. Once Mitchell had landed the coveted role in the Peacock Original miniseries Joe vs Carole, the production team in Australia were happy to provide hypoallergenic kittens for him to interact with, which would later be transformed into tiger cubs by the visual effects whizzes, while Great Danes were the on-set stand-ins for the fully-grown tigers.
Maldonado-Passage is currently serving a 21-year prison sentence following a conviction for attempting to hire two different men to murder big cat advocate Carole Baskin. The origins of that dangerous rivalry were chronicled in the hit Netflix series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness and the Wondery podcast Joe Exotic: Tiger King, hosted and reported by Robert Moor, upon which this new Peacock is based. With Kate McKinnon co-starring as Baskin, Joe vs Carole takes viewers behind their eccentric public personas, deep into the backstories of these two flawed but compelling characters, exploring what shaped them.
Ahead of the series launch, with all eight episodes dropping on Peacock on Thursday, March 3rd, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with John Cameron Mitchell about finding his way into playing Joe Exotic and identifying with the way Joe created a queer-friendly community of misfits with his zoo.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: congratulations John, I loved your performance in this. You so fully embodied him, I kept not seeing you there and just seeing Joe. Going in, I knew that I would laugh a lot, but I hadn’t expected there to be so many touching and poignant moments. Can you give me an insight into what your pathway to playing Joe was?
John Cameron Mitchell: “Etan Frankel, the showrunner, created this blueprint of the basic events, but also the backstory. So unlike the docuseries, you really get into what these two characters had to go through and how they reacted. In some ways, both of them are aspirational characters who triumphed over a lot of abuse, and homophobia, and misogyny, and AIDS. It was a minefield for them and they created their own kingdoms.”
“Instead of running away to the big city, like most queer people do, Joe stayed and made his own kingdom of misfits—misfit animals, misfit people—and it felt like a kind of wonderful sanctuary. Then it started to curdle, because if you get beat up that much, the danger is that you start beating up somebody else that doesn’t deserve it and Carole became the focus of that. He’s a relentless self-promoter, like Hedwig, and like other queer survivors or queer icons, they came from adversity, and no one’s gonna tear them down again, right? But the danger is that your confidence curdles into narcissism and paranoia. But what a great delicious role to play all those things.”
I know you grew up in a similar region, but were there any other personal connections that helped you as you were preparing your portrayal?
“When you’re queer you have a few options: you can either keep your head down and be the hairdresser in town and just get on with it, or you go to the big city and you find your community, or the third way, which is create your own community in that rural place. I do the same with my plays and movies and my projects; I bring in people. Our projects tend to be temporary though and they decay before they become unhealthy. I think when things last too long, there’s infighting and hierarchy. I like the idea of temporary communities that keep springing up and you work with a group of people over and over, but in different configurations. His lasted a little too long in a certain configuration and led to disaster. Carole was part of that and Carole’s own reputation has been in tatters too since then. There’s a complexity about these two people who could have been friends in another life. But I do relate to Joe a lot and he’s very similar to another character I play which is Hedwig, another blonde-wigged victim who triumphs over their adversity, but also can be very bitter and recriminatory. Hedwig breaks the cycle of abuse. Joe doesn’t. That’s the difference.”
You portray him from the 80s up until present day and there’s obviously a wealth of footage out there of Joe. What was your approach to absorbing some of that footage and did it help you to discover different aspects of him, because we get to see both the showman and the private Joe in the series?
“I moved around a lot as a kid and changed my accent to fit in, so that’s why I became an actor and interested in different cultures and milieux and people. I’m a very curious person. He obviously presents a lot of personas throughout his life. We don’t see all of them on his videos, so we try to imagine what they would be in this series. What is he like when he’s alone with his husband? We know what he’s like in front of an audience, but what is the vulnerable side? There’s one tape of him in the 90s where he’s very different to how you see him later; he’s soft-spoken, has a bit of a lisp, and he’s very sweet and humble. Watching that I was like, ‘Wow, that’s what he was like before life beat him up and gave him a calloused skin’. So I always had to remind myself that that kid is still in there, and then it becomes layered rather than just a kind of loud drag-like character.”
As you touched on, whatever other views you might have of him, I think you can’t but admire how open he is about his queerness and his polyamory. The three-way wedding that we see recreated in the series with the men wearing those pink shirts and his mother being there to walk him down the aisle is pretty incredible. What do you make of that aspect of the way he lives, far away from the likes of Hell’s Kitchen or West Hollywood?
“He’s making his own queer-friendly community and people responded to that. Every rural place has their misfits. I partially grew up in a small town in Kansas and my friend Bridget Everett is on the show Somebody Somewhere on HBO, where she goes back to Manhattan, Kansas—which is right where I lived—and finds her little community there unexpectedly. Every town has the interesting people who couldn’t get out or decided not to, but they create their own little spaces and those are the most interesting people in the world because they have the down-home charm and kindness, but they don’t swallow the Kool Aid either. They’re not sheep. They’ve created the unwanted animal zoos of their own, that they rule. Joe felt like he was doing the same with the ex-cons and rehab people and down-and-outers, many of whom are dealing with problems. In one way he thinks he’s taking care of them and in another way he’s controlling them.”
“After his first husband died of AIDS, he gravitated towards down-and-out guys who didn’t necessarily identify as queer. Partially, because I’m sure that’s what he grew up with, those were the boys he liked, but also because they can’t challenge him. His first husband could, his first husband was daddy. He had his own addiction problems, but he took care of Joe. Later, Joe wanted to take care of them, which meant, in his view, also control them a bit. So there’s a double-edged sword there. But again, all of these layers make it really fun to play.”
By James Kleinmann
All eight episodes of Joe vs Carole are stream exclusively on Peacock from Thursday, March 3rd 2022.
Watch our exclusive interview with John Cameron Mitchell: