In April 2020, the two tiger enthusiasts unexpectedly became the biggest personalities in America thanks to the runaway success of the Netflix documentary, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. The seven-part series chronicled the escalating feud that emerged between the two as they fought over the livelihood of the big cats in Exotic’s captivity. Things came to an unexpected end when Exotic attempted to have Baskin murdered but ended up behind bars instead.
Two years later, their stories are being retold, but with more humility as the eight-part dramedy digs into Baskin and Exotic’s past lives, to show their stories before they were consumed by the lengthy legal battle. “It’s a very different approach to a somewhat similar story, where you go deep and you really care about these people,” Mitchell tells ET.
“The docuseries was compelling, but it didn’t really go deep,” he explains, pointing out that moments that “formed Joe fully” were left out. “And this, you really go deep.”
“I was really interested in, ‘How did these people become who they became before they crossed each other’s paths?’” says showrunner and executive producer Etan Frankel. “And then, how did those backstories and their life experiences impact what became this feud?”
He points out, “Both Joe and Carole experienced a great deal of trauma earlier in their lives. And I think that had a huge impact on what happened once they entered each other’s lives. And if that trauma had not occurred or if their lives had played out differently, perhaps this story would have had a much different ending.”
As a result, especially thanks to both McKinnon and Mitchell’s performances, Joe vs. Carole actually humanizes both personalities with a sympathetic perspective on the largely untold and previously unexplored traumas they experienced. For Exotic, that was years of living in the closet, which led to a suicide attempt and extensive physical rehabilitation, before finding real happiness with his first husband, Brian Rhyne, who later died of AIDS.
“You see where he comes from. You see the homophobia, you see that suicide attempt, his husband of 17 years,” Mitchell says, with Frankel adding, “It was exciting to explore who Joe was in a functional relationship. And by all appearances, his first marriage to Brian was functional and loving and an equal relationship… He was proud of who he was. It’s a beautiful part of his story that deserves to be celebrated.”
“I think after that death, he toughened up, he became the Tiger King, like, ‘No one’s ever going to hurt me again.’ And before that he was a more vulnerable character,” says Mitchell, who had a surprisingly deep understanding of Exotic, thanks to a life that paralleled his in a lot of ways.
Mitchell grew up a lonely kid in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, eventually creating a larger-than-life persona with Hedwig, which became the centerpiece of his hit film and Broadway show, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He also lost a partner 15 years ago. “I also had a bit of that survivor's guilt having, you know, come out right when AIDS hit,” the actor adds, with Frankel noting, “All of those things informed John’s performance.”
Meanwhile, for Baskin, that was years of emotional and physical abuse from the men in her life, going back to her first partner and the father of her daughter, who almost killed her in a drunken tirade, to a husband who stole all her money before disappearing.
Most prominently known for her Emmy-winning performance on Saturday Night Live, McKinnon admits it was pretty daunting at first. “It was a leap, for sure,” she says. “Most of the things I do last three minutes and this lasted eight hours. So, it required a lot more prep than I’m used to… It’s really scary to try anything, but you gotta keep trying stuff, you know?”
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‘Joe vs. Carole’: John Cameron Mitchell Says Playing Joe Exotic Was Like ‘Eating Too Much Junk Food’
Frankel, however, applauds McKinnon for being able to tap into something darker here and deliver an unexpected, nuanced performance. “In terms of Carole’s backstories and the adversity she faced, these were very emotionally charged scenes. And Kate was unbelievably committed,” he says, before pointing out one moment later in the season, when Baskin finally confronts Exotic in court.
“We had written it: Carole takes the stand. And during the whole walk over to the witness box, she doesn’t look at Joe. She takes the oath and then she sits down and looks at him,” Frankel says. “And I just remember the look on Kate’s face. The intensity, everything that was built into that look. It said so much with no words. I just remember really, really loving that moment and telling her how incredible she was.”
While each actor was able to tap into the vulnerabilities of each character, helping them transform even further were the makeup, wigs and costumes. Like many recent, real-life stories told onscreen, Joe vs. Carole delivers on stunning makeovers, with both McKinnon and Mitchell disappearing into their counterparts. “Some of these actors spent an enormous amount of time in the makeup chair,” Frankel says, adding that “something, whether it’s a flower crown or a wig, is enormously helpful to transform.”
For McKinnon, the wig, which was dubbed “Barbara” on set, was her way of connecting with Baskin. “I couldn’t access the character on any level until I put on that wig,” she says. “I was just like, ‘Yes, now I can feel it.’ because she has a man, she has cultivated a man of her own. And I suddenly felt so in sync with her spirit.”
As for the clothing, McKinnon credits costume designer Amelia Gebler for finding and collecting any wild animal print, including some of Baskin’s actual clothes. “She got the real shirt that Carole wore in the documentary. It was an incredible sartorial journey that I got to go on,” she says.
Perhaps undergoing a bit more of a dramatic makeover was Mitchell, who donned a mullet, a number of fake tattoos and silicone nipples with jewelry attached since he wasn’t pierced like Exotic was. “Oh, my gosh, he really got the look,” McKinnon says of her co-star. “I’m such a fan of his from so long ago and he’s such an incredible performer and philosopher and such a live wire and I knew he was just going to soar in this role and he did even beyond what I had imagined.”
However, no matter how much the two stars were able to tap into “where they came from, the abuse they experienced and why they became a larger-than-life character,” Mitchell says, “I don’t condone it at all, but I do understand it now.”