Joe vs. Carole Star John Cameron Mitchell Details Channeling the Humanity of the Tiger King

Most of the world was introduced to the outlandish antics of Joe "Exotic" back in 2020 with the debut of a Netflix series focusing on his trials and tribulations, only for that program to cement the figure in the world of pop culture. While the project was a documentary, it mainly highlighted his larger-than-life attributes more than what really made him tick, but with the all-new Peacock series Joe vs. Carole, actor John Cameron Mitchell was tasked with finding the humanity in the character, as opposed to merely playing a caricature. All eight episodes of Joe vs. Carole are now streaming on Peacock.

"All the footage we have of Joe and Carole [Baskin] is footage that they're aware is being shot, so they're performing. Joe's nothing if not a performer, and Carole is too, in her subtler way, and she's got this facade that's seamless and no one's going to get through that caftan," Mitchell shared with of how this series offers a more authentic representation of the figure. "And Joe's got the mullet and the tattoos and everything. That's his armor. That's his... They're both in drag on camera, but we never see them in their real lives. We never see them, those quiet moments with their lovers, that we don't see the vulnerable moments. If he's crying, you sometimes sense it's for show, though the Wondery podcast got closer to them."

Mitchell continued, "There's stories about his husband, Brian Rhyne, who died of AIDS, that never were in the docuseries. The docuseries wasn't really interested in them as real people or as abuse survivors. They were interested in them as Celebrity Deathmatch characters, and the characters were compelling enough, but they're rushing through it. We try to find their origin stories. We try to find out what made them what they are, what are the things they went through, what's admirable about them, what breaks your heart about them, and then it's even sadder when they become inflexible and hostile with each other. You're like, 'No, they could have been buddies. They could have been this and that.' I just found it a very rich role to play. It was almost like I was getting to play Richard the Third or something."

Based on the Wondery podcast Joe Exotic, hosted and reported by Robert Moor, the limited series will center on Carole Baskin, a big cat enthusiast, who learns that fellow exotic animal lover Joe "Exotic" Schreibvogel is breeding and using his big cats for profit. She sets out to shut down his venture, inciting a quickly escalating rivalry. But Carole has a checkered past of her own and when the claws come out, Joe will stop at nothing to expose what he sees as her hypocrisy. The results prove dangerous.

To more accurately capture all of Exotic's layers, Mitchell did his own research into the figure, leading him in some unexpected directions.

"Certain things came out that I didn't realize. Joe said he was sexually abused by his father and brother. He had another beloved brother who died, that he named the zoo after, and he seems to be... Him and his mom seem to have kept Joe going," Mitchell pointed out. "I think it was the 17-year-old marriage with Brian Rhyne that ended with his death from AIDS that was the most revealing thing to me. It formed him. It toughened him up. He was never going to get hurt again. He chose people who were a lot weaker than him to be with after that. Brian was the levelheaded one, the daddy, in the relationship. And I keep thinking, 'If he had lived, none of that would happen.' None of the abuse. I think Brian would've held him back from that. None of the deals with the devil, Jeff Lowe, Rick Kirkham, all of these freaks, Doc Antle.

He continued, "Megalomaniacs seek out other megalomaniacs. That's why Trump supports Putin, you know what I'm saying? It's like, they all... It's a good old boys club. Sometimes there's a woman involved, too, but it's an ugly thing. It's like they back each other up. And I don't think Brian would've allowed that, but these are things happen. And this is what happened, and Joe was destroyed by his own hubris, by his own paranoia, and confusing people who were trying sometimes to help him with people who wanted to hurt him. And that's a self-fulfilling prophecy, you'll destroy yourself if you see enemies everywhere."

Mitchell has described his take on Exotic as being an "interpretation" of the real-life personality, as opposed to an impersonation, with the actor noting that there wasn't much interest in attempting to actually connect with Exotic himself.

"They discouraged us from doing so just because of legal reasons and Joe tends to make things about himself, and we didn't want to be partial to Joe or Caroe," Mitchell expressed of a potential meeting. "He would've asked to see the script and all that. It's like, I didn't really have that kind of authority. And then, later, when he saw a picture of me, he actually called me a... I was going to make him look like a 'flaming f-word.' Can't even say the word anymore, but he was a joy to play. I haven't had more fun on camera ever."

He confirmed, "I realize, in retrospect, there's a lot in common with the other role I'm known for which is Hedwig, a blonde-headed show person with a lot of axes to grind and an obsession with a specific enemy. I didn't think about that when I was auditioning. I just thought, 'What a great role to play.' Someone who's this little gay boy surviving in a hostile world and creating his own persona, creating a superhero called 'Joe Exotic' to defend himself, but also a persona that destroyed him. He, in effect, imitated his bullies, cartoonized them, and then outdid them by becoming an attempted murderer."

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

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