Actor playing Joe Exotic in new drama found ’empathy’ for the Tiger King: ‘He’s a vulnerable person’

John Cameron Mitchell plays Joe Exotic in Joe vs Carole.

John Cameron Mitchell doesn’t have any time for Tiger King – which might come as a surprise, given he’s playing Joe Exotic in a new series.

Mitchell stars opposite Kate McKinnon in Joe vs Carole, the hotly-anticipated new show that reappraises the life of Joe Exotic and the battle between him and his rival Carole Baskin. If you’re expecting something sensational, you’d be better off looking elsewhere. 

“I watched the first episode [of Tiger King] and I was like, ‘Wow, these are fascinating people,’ but it had that kind of Real Housewives surface view of things – looking for trouble, poking the tiger, poking the characters to make them say outrageous things,” Mitchell tells PinkNews.

“It didn’t seem to have any empathy for them, it just felt like a rubberneck thing.”

Mitchell draws attention to Louis Theroux’s documentary on Joe Exotic, which saw Theroux hugging the infamous zookeeper, noting that he had more “sympathy for this eager-to-please young man who got tougher and harder as things went along” than perhaps the makers of Tiger King .

“He’s a vulnerable person and it’s a dream role to play,” he adds. “I compare it to something like Richard III, someone who was a hunchback, who was spit upon and gets his revenge and he’s brilliant, but also he’s ultimately the seed of his own demise. He made his bed and now he’s lying in it in a penitentiary.” 

Joe Exotic is a ‘drag king’ whose story needs reappraisal

From the minute he heard there was a television series being made about Joe Exotic, John Cameron Mitchell wanted the part.

“I’m the same age, from the same part of the country,” he says, which means he understands part of what made the Tiger King the way he is.

To say Exotic isn’t TV’s archetypal gay man would be an understatement – he is, as Mitchell describes him, a “gun-toting, mullet-wearing” kind of guy.

“Unfortunately, when you’ve been beaten down by homophobia for so long, as people of my generation often had, and been through [the AIDS crisis]… and he was sexually abused by his family members, the danger is that you become paranoid and you start to see enemies everywhere, and you end up imitating your oppressor, and that’s what he did with Carole Baskin,” Mitchell says.

When he – and Exotic – were growing up, “there were three options for queer people in a small rural place in the States”, he explains.

“Either you keep your head down, you go into the closet, you become the hairdresser or the gym coach, and you keep it quiet. Or, you go to the nearest big city where there’s a gay scene and you escape. But the third way is unusual, and that was Joe’s, which is: I’m going to stake my claim here and I’m going to make my own kingdom.”

John Cameron Mitchell in Joe vs Carole

John Cameron Mitchell in Joe vs Carole. (Peacock/Sky)


I don’t believe you have to be gay to play gay or straight to play straight but in this case I think I was able to draw on my own outsider status to play him.

He was able to tap into Exotic’s psyche quite quickly. “I understand the certain down home, salt of the earth way of being,” Mitchell says.

Playing the role rekindled something in him: “The boys that I was attracted to, their pick-up trucks and their Skoal snuff. It was fun to revisit my youth in a way, but also, what might have been.

“What if I had stayed and become a colourful character to protect myself with that mullet that never ended? It was his drag – he was a drag queen, really, in his own way. A drag king, he would say, because he definitely had a fear of his own femininity, which a lot of gay men have. They’re taught that it’s more acceptable to be a murderer than to be like a woman.”

Mitchell was also heartened that the show delves into Joe Exotic’s relationship with his first husband Brian, who died from AIDS-related illnesses. 

Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin in Joe vs Carole.

Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin in Joe vs Carole. (Peacock/Sky)

“That formative experience and loss was the beginning of the tougher Joe. It formed him, and I’m so glad that they honoured that in this show even though the directors and showrunners were straight. They cast Kate [McKinnon] and I, the queerdos, to inject some of that energy in there. I don’t believe you have to be gay to play gay or straight to play straight but in this case I think I was able to draw on my own outsider status to play him.” 

John Cameron Mitchell ‘disagrees’ with Russell T Davies on straight actors playing gay

With a character as colourful and complex as Joe Exotic, does Mitchell think it helps to have a gay actor taking on that role? 

“I think it does,” Mitchell says. “I love Russell T Davies, for example. He’s one of our greatest TV writers ever, and he’s like, ‘I think only gay people should play gay characters.’ I have to disagree. You know, it is acting, and you can follow that slippery slope and then it’s like, well, nobody can play anybody but themselves, and then you get a bunch of autobiographies.”

That logic doesn’t apply across the board, Mitchell is quick to point out – he says it would be “silly” to cast a white person as a Black character – not to mention offensive. But he doesn’t think it makes sense to look at that (thankfully) settled debate in the same context as the ongoing discussion around queer actors and queer roles.

I’m far from Joe Exotic but I understand certain things about him

“I’ve played straight, I’ve played gay, I’ve played a woman. These are people that we have some things in common with but are not us, and if you’re going to have fiction, you need to be able to use your imagination. Even playing these roles builds empathy in the person playing it.”

Mitchell points out that he’s “far from Joe Exotic”, but says he was able to draw on “a trove of emotional information” about the man to craft his portrayal.

“I’m far from Joe Exotic but I understand certain things about him. I think another misfit that’s not gay could understand it as well… to me it’s not vital but I think in this case we brought some stuff to it that might not have been there if Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan did it. I don’t know why I thought of them!” he laughs. 

Joe vs Carole is released on Sky and Now TV on Friday 4 March.