John Cameron Mitchell: Playing Joe Exotic 'like Hedwig'

John Cameron Mitchell plays Joe Exotic in "Joe vs. Carole." Photo courtesy of Peacock
1 of 5 | John Cameron Mitchell plays Joe Exotic in "Joe vs. Carole." Photo courtesy of Peacock

LOS ANGELES, March 3 (UPI) -- John Cameron Mitchell said playing Joe Exotic in Joe vs. Carole, premiering Thursday on Peacock, was similar to his character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

"It was closer to something like Hedwig," Mitchell told UPI in a recent phone interview. "Hedwig, again with a blonde wig, is an unsympathetic character at times -- a victim who lashes out at his band and is very bitter, but entertaining, and people do sympathize."


Joe vs. Carole depicts Exotic's feud with rival tiger sanctuary owner Carole Baskin (Kate McKinnon). The feud was the subject of the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

Exotic, born Joseph Maldonado-Passage, is in prison, convicted of conspiracy to murder Baskin. Mitchell said the real Exotic was able to make himself the hero in the story despite his criminal conviction.


"He did kind of win in the sympathy award between Joe and Carole early on," Mitchell said. "Cardi B said, 'Free Joe Exotic.' He was sympathetic to a lot of people."

Joe vs. Carole attempts to present both characters sympathetically. Carole is shown escaping abusive marriages, and Exotic is shown in rehab after a suicide attempt due to depression over remaining in the closet.

"You get to know the trauma that led them to be perhaps of strong will, but perhaps hubristic characters," Mitchell said. They were "people that created their own communities to rule over. Sometimes, that rule was unfair, and even later led to attempted murder."

When Tiger King was released in March 2020, Mitchell said he was not a fan, turned off by the point of view the show presented.

"I found it a bit repellant," Mitchell said. "The way it was presented was a little bit like, 'Oh my God, look at the horrors that can happen in the hinterlands.' Not even celebrating like Duck Dynasty, but kind of ogling. It was like a rubberneck situation."

When Mitchell auditioned for Joe vs. Carole, he had to finish watching Tiger King to prepare. Mitchell said it was his first audition in 25 years, since he's been offered every role he played since he co-created Hedwig as a stage musical in 1998 with Stephen Trask.


"It comes at you very fast, and it's lots of color and movement," Mitchell said of Tiger King. "But I found that the scripts that Eton [Frankel] wrote were much more to my liking."

Joe vs. Carole went into development in summer 2020, beating a second Joe Exotic production to the air. Frankel based the show on the podcast Joe Exotic.

Mitchell said the complexities of Joe Exotic were as rare as those of Hedwig, who had a botched gender reassignment surgery to escape East Berlin, and a former lover stole Hedwig's songs to become a famous rock star.

"I had more fun doing this than I did Hedwig because I didn't have to direct it," Mitchell said. "Though God knows I tried. I kept saying, 'What if the camera was over here?'"

Another similarity between Hedwig and Exotic is that they both are singers. Joe vs. Carole does not include any Joe Exotic songs because the production did not want to pay a convicted felon for the rights, Mitchell said.

Mitchell did write an original song for the series, but it did not make the final cut. He has released "Call Me Joe" on streaming music services.

"It's Joe singing to his late husband Travis," Mitchell said. "Nat Wolff, who plays Travis, actually sings a verse."


Mitchell said the production advised him not to contact Exotic in prison, adding he was glad he didn't when he observed Exotic's reaction to him.

"He even posted something after seeing a picture of me saying, 'John Cameron Mitchell's gonna make me look like a flaming fag,'" Mitchell said. "Better to stay away."

Mitchell made the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2001. Stage productions have continued.

"The sun never sets on Hedwig around the world," Mitchell said. "Someone's doing it, and it's a wonderful child of Stephen Trask and mine that will live on without us."

After Hedwig, Mitchell wrote and directed the films Shortbus and How to Talk to Girls at Parties. He directed the film Rabbit Hole and appeared on series including Girls, Mozart in the Jungle and Shrill.

As a creator, Mitchell said he is focusing on audio productions. He created the Anthem: Homunculus podcast and released the album, New American Dream.

Mitchell said he is raising financing for another podcast and developing a TV series. He said he expects film to swing back around, but notes independent film has waned since he made Hedwig.

"The '90s and 2000s was a golden age," Mitchell said. "You would just go see whatever was best reviewed, no matter who was in it or what country it came from. People don't do that anymore and just go to their Netflix or HBO."


All episodes of Joe vs. Carole release on Peacock on Thursday.

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