Joe Vs. Carole's John Cameron Mitchell Talks About Becoming Joe Exotic - Exclusive Interview

This interview contains discussion about sexual abuse.

If you've never been able to get quite enough of the Tiger King, you're in luck. The new series "Joe vs. Carole" is exploring all the odds and ends surrounding the man's obsession with tigers and his feud with feline-loving Carole Baskin.


The scripted series, based on the Wondery podcast by the same name, shows that there's surprisingly much of their story that's been left to be told. From the mullets to the fight that sent Joe Exotic to prison and how they both grew up to be the cool cats they are today, "Joe vs. Carole" exposes nearly every aspect of their lives — and we get to see actors John Cameron Mitchell and Kate McKinnon in a completely new way with their respective portrayals of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, too.

We had the opportunity to sit down with John Cameron Mitchell for an inside look at his new series. In an exclusive interview with The List, the actor described how he perfected Joe Exotic's accent, the surprising revelation he had about playing him, and what the real Tiger King had to say about seeing the actor portray him on screen.


Here's how John Cameron Mitchell prepared to play Joe Exotic

How much time did you spend watching the docuseries "Tiger King" and listening to the podcast "Joe vs. Carole" in order to prepare to play Joe Exotic?

As soon as I was cast, which was four days after I submitted my audition, I was on it. I hadn't really watched the whole series. I'd watched part of it, so I immersed myself in the month after that, before we got to Australia, in the docuseries, in the podcast, in every one of Joe Exotic TV videos, trying to find Joe in different settings. He had a lot of different accents and a lot of different voices for different environments.


He was a showman. He was as much of an actor as I am. I realized as I got into it that I had a lot more in common with him than I thought. We're the same age. We're from the same part of the country. We were always militantly openly gay when it wasn't cool. We had our self hatreds. We worked through them. We created environments. He would do shows and zoos, and I would do plays and musicals and films.

They're all groups of misfits that have a purpose. His went on a little too long, so it became a bit of a cult, you know, with him in charge, perhaps not treating everybody as well as he could have. His own traumas of homophobia, and losing his husband to AIDS, his sexual abuse — his father actually sexually abused him and his brother, according to him — led to this very complex character who had empathy for people, but also needed to be in charge, needed to be the center of attention. [He] ultimately was so defensive and so sensitive to attack, that he became an attempted murderer, which I haven't yet. [Laughs]


If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Why the actor has yet to meet the Tiger King himself

How did you perfect Joe Exotic's accent?

Like I said, I'm from the same part of the country. I actually was born in Texas. I lived in Kansas near where he was born. I [also] lived in Oklahoma, an hour away from where his zoo was. That was before the zoo. It was in the '60s.


I have a lot of friends. In fact, Hedwig's hair [that I wore in the film "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"] was inspired by my friend Stacy Orr, who actually lives in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, still, and married to a cowboy.

I know that part of the country. I haven't been there in a while, but I know it. I know about your Skoal in your back pocket, making a round shape in your jeans, and your pickup trucks and your — I always had a crush on all those guys. If I had stayed, I might be a little Joe-ish.

Have you gotten the chance to meet him?

No, because we — You can imagine. He's so manipulative that it's not a good idea. In fact, they encouraged us not to, because we also don't want to be on anyone's side. Joe versus Carole, whatever.


I think that decision was right, because later he's like [speaks in Joe Exotic's accent], "John Cameron Mitchell's going to make me look like a flaming f*g" is what he posted. [Laughs] My response was a painted nails emoji. I'm like, "Honey, girlfriend, you're already there."

What it was like working alongside Kate McKinnon

Your co-star Kate McKinnon adds a bit of a comedic twist to her character, Carole Baskin, that you're feuding with. What was it like to play off of her?

I love her deeply. We've become fast friends and will be working together in the future. She's extremely shy, where I'm more outgoing. I'm an outgoing loner, let's say, and she's definitely more of a loner. [She] would prefer to garden than go to a party.


We both decided with the agreement of our showrunner Etan [Frankel], who we love, that we're not going to impersonate the characters. We aren't doing every twitch and everything that they do. We are interpreting them. We are maybe 50% them and the other 50% is our interpretation. We're not trying to do a "Saturday Night Live" thing. I'm not gaining 40 pounds to [look like someone]. To me, that's very — That's about the actor. That's about vanity. "Look how interesting I am."

What I hoped we did was to go into their emotions, to have some surface stuff. I certainly listened to his voice a lot and studied him a bit physically, but I didn't want to hamstring myself from feeling what he feels. Sometimes, when you see a very technical performance like that, all you're seeing is, "Oh, my good. Look. They did the exact head nod."


Once in a while, you have to take the leash off and feel what they might have felt, to go there and not feel trapped in them. Imagine what they might be like when they're alone with their lovers, because we never saw that.

His surprising realization from playing Joe Exotic

What was it that surprised you the most about playing Joe Exotic?

That we had a lot in common. I grew up, like I said, in the same area. At that time, there were three options for a gay man. You could keep your head down, go in the closet, and do your job, or become the hairdresser, and then you've got your place in a small town.


The [second] option is to get the hell out to the bigger city, find your way, which is a common thing for queer people.

The third way is what he did, which is like, "F*** y'all. I'm going to make my own safe place within the redneck country. I'm going to make my zoo. I'm going to make my pet shop. I'm going to put people with the other misfits and the misfit animals, and it's going to be a sanctuary," [and] ultimately can become a bit of a cult where he can abuse his power. That's the danger, [that] the abused person becomes the abuser, which, I think, is exactly what happened to him.

All eight episodes of "Joe vs. Carole" are now streaming on Peacock.