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After John Cameron Mitchell was cast to portray Joe Exotic in the new Peacock series Joe vs. Carole, images from the set leaked online of the gay actor in a mustache and bright cowboy attire. The Tiger King himself responded with a slashing review.
Mitchell "is just going to make me look like a flaming fag... and I'm a hard-working gay male," tweeted the incarcerated zoo owner, who had been convicted in 2019 on charges of animal abuse and murder for hire. Mitchell's response? A painted nail emoji. "I was like, 'Joe, please. Come on. We're all in this -- I mean, we're not all in jail together. But we're all queer. Let's not get upset,'" he recalls with a laugh.
Joe vs. Carole, premiering March 3 on NBCUniversal's streaming service, focuses on the rivalry between Exotic and Carole Baskin (Kate McKinnon), the CEO of Big Cat Rescue and a vocal opponent of collectors like Exotic who cage big cats for profit. Created by Etan Frankel, the miniseries is inspired by season 2 of the Wondery true-crime podcast Over My Dead Body, which followed Exotic's criminal case.
But of course, the pair's feud rose to international infamy with the 2020 release of the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. The production quickly became one of the streaming service's biggest hits, breeding a second season (and the possibility of a third) and a cultural fascination with Exotic, a gay, polyamorous zookeeper and former police chief with flamboyant style and red-state roots.
Mitchell was not among the avid fans of Tiger King; he had watched "a couple of minutes" of one episode, but it was "a little too rubbernecky" with "a lack of empathy." However, Mitchell -- best known for creating and starring in the queer rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch as well as Shortbus -- found himself drawn to Exotic.
"It was a role that I didn't expect to have much in common with, but I ended up doing so," says Mitchell. He compares the role to Hedwig, in which "everything I've learned, I can put into it."
In fact, there are many commonalities between Mitchell and Exotic. They're nearly the same age, born about one month apart. They both have roots in Kansas and Texas. And Mitchell understands what it was like to grow up as a queer person there.
"I know those small towns," he says. "And I also know that the queers tend to get out before they kill themselves. Or they become a hairdresser or antique dealer and kind of recede into the wallpaper. There's wonderful queers everywhere, but it's not this fertile land to fly your freak flag. And so I admire Joe's courage in that department."
As the miniseries shows, Exotic did not have an easy life, particularly in his formative years. He was raped as a child. His first partner, Brian Rhyne, died of HIV complications. There were suicide attempts. He faced stigma at every turn, including from family members, and his response was to claw back.
"When he finds his way out of the closet -- and he really came out with a vengeance -- [he] didn't move to the big city,"
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Mitchell says. "He's like, I'm a country boy, and I'm going to be the redneck fag with the guns. So in a way, he was sui generis: He created his own drag to protect himself there."
Another connection between the pair? Found family. Exotic "created his community" at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (or the G.W. Zoo, in Oklahoma) through a collection of misfits who found a common cause. It reminds Mitchell of the bonds he formed through plays and films -- although Exotic's community "started to feel a little bit like a cult" as he exerted his influence as the authority figure.
And this is where the overlapping ground ends. "Instead of transforming his queerness to something better, he kind of amped it up," Mitchell says. "And his drag was to overcome the toxic heterosexuality, and he sort of became the toxic homosexual. So that's where I parted ways with him. But I did admire his get-up-and-go and his community-based stuff and his flash -- but of course, that can be also megalomaniacal."
However, these tensions made Exotic "a delightful role to sink my teeth into." In fact, Exotic was the first part Mitchell auditioned for in 25 years. (As a now-established figure in the entertainment world, Mitchell is often offered roles.) For his audition tape -- the actor was in London shooting Netflix's The Sandman at the time -- Mitchell went "all out" in wearing a mustache, mullet, and costume. It was clearly an impressive performance. "I sent in my audition tape on a Monday and got cast on a Thursday, which is unheard of," Mitchell says.
This ability to snap up roles was not always the case for Mitchell. "I was always very open about being gay when it wasn't considered cool for your career," he recalls. "But I was like, You can tell me what to do on camera, you can't tell me what to do in my life. And fuck off if you don't want to cast me if you're homophobic. And that stood me in good stead. I don't know if I lost roles, because I wouldn't want to work with [homophobes] anyway."
Mitchell did bemoan losing some parts early in his career -- he mentions being a runner-up for coveted roles in The Breakfast Club and Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, "I was so glad it didn't happen in retrospect, because I wouldn't have done any of the stuff I really care about," like creating Hedwig.
Times are changing. But even in 2022, Joe vs. Carole is unique in that both leads -- he and SNL's Kate McKinnon -- are queer. McKinnon is also an executive producer on the project. "Kate's nervous -- it's her first dramatic role, but I love her so much. And we'll deal with it together, whatever happens," he says of the production's reception.
While Mitchell doesn't have a hard-and-fast rule when it comes to "authentic" LGBTQ+ casting, "let's get those queer people to the front of the line" for auditions, he reasons. And he's encouraged that folks in Tinseltown are having that conversation while more LGBTQ+ actors receive a platform. "Eventually we will have massive queer stars -- that's already starting to happen, but that's the capitalism part," he observes. "Hollywood is less homophobic than capitalistic. They just want the biggest star generally in the role. And if they don't want the biggest star, it's because they want to pay the least amount of money."
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Mitchell notes that Nicolas Cage was also up for the part of Exotic in a separate production for Amazon, a deal that eventually fell through. But he does think a queer actor like himself, who understood Exotic's background, can bring something to the table -- if only just an ease in filming queer sex scenes and nudity.
As a child of the '90s, "I don't give a shit," Mitchell says of being intimate for the camera. "Nowadays, there's lots of intimacy counselors, which is great, but I laugh a little because I think, you know, imagine having an intimacy counselor in the orgy scene in Hedwig [or Shortbus], you know, may I put my hand inside you?" There's also a fearlessness in authenticity. At one point in production of Joe vs. Carole, Mitchell advocated for the use of the word "faggot" in a scene because "that's what would have happened at that time...and in fact, Joe said it all the time."
The specter of self-hatred is a sizable presence in the miniseries. Mitchell recognizes that, beyond just Joe and Carole, the show is a portrait of how societal homophobia and toxic masculinity can be the enemy in a person's life. He recalls watching footage of Exotic in his 20s, when he was more "gay-presenting" and "not the crazy, grinning ghoul talking a mile a minute that you saw later," a transformation that captivated the actor.
"I was fascinated by this fragile femme side of him, which I do access in the earlier scenes. What do you have to do to survive in that environment? What kind of armor you have to put on? How heavy is the armor and can it drag you down? He was an alternate me, if I'd never left that town and if I liked big cats. There but for the grace of Goddess go I."
This urge to crush the effeminate nature in oneself is still rampant among queer men. "We all know straight people who are more queer than our gay friends," Mitchell notes. "They're more aware of gender as a flow. And some gay guys just get overwrought with the 'straight-acting' and trying to imitate their oppressor. And they're not very queer, they're just kind of sheep in the matrix."
Mitchell finds this tendency to approximate the mannerisms of the "ruling class," a.k.a. straight white men, "repulsive" and "misogynistic." He adds, "It can be like an animal that dies in your wall, inside you, it can stink a place up. I found I wasn't even attracted to femme guys until I did Hedwig and suddenly found femme guys attractive. It cured me! Playing people who weren't me cured me." It's a practice he recommends throughout this interview: In acting, writing, or other creative pursuits, try walking in another's shoes. "That is the beginning of empathy," he attests.
As for Exotic, portraying him has not convinced Mitchell that the hitman-hiring zookeeper deserves a get-out-of-jail-free card. But there is some empathy to be found in the acting. "He is going to be shocked at how humanized and de-demonized he is by this -- without condoning his behavior," Mitchell says.
Talent JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL@johncameronmitchell
Photographer DEVIN KASPARIANdevinkasparian.com@devinkasparian
Producer TIM SNOW@snowmgz
Styling ALI MCNALLY alimcnallystylist.com@itsalimcnally
Grooming LAUREN CHEMIN@laurencheminmua for EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS
Photo Assistant JACK HYLER@jackhyler
Production Assistant DIOGO DE LIMA-HAHN
Location THE MARIGNY New Orleans
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This interview is part of Out's March/April 2022 issue, appearing on newsstands April 5. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News on March 22.
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