John Cameron Mitchell is a multihyphenate who has worked onstage and on screen, as an actor, writer and director. Best known for co-writing and starring in the genderqueer rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch — first off-Broadway, then in the 2001 film adaptation and later a Tony-winning Broadway revival — Mitchell is one of the most prolific and beloved queer artists of their generation. This year, Mitchell donned a mullet and copious amounts of eyeliner to play the infamous Joe Exotic in Peacock’s limited series Joe vs. Carole, opposite Kate McKinnon as Joe’s nemesis, Carole Baskin. Mitchell sat down with THR to discuss their approach to the over-the-top character and finding the human underneath the bravado.
I’ve read that you said you hadn’t seen Netflix’s Tiger King. Were you aware of Joe Exotic’s story?
Yeah, vaguely. For my audition, I didn’t want to do an impersonation, because I think that’s, like, karaoke or something. Both Kate and I were probably 50 percent the real person and 50 percent our interpretation, which loosens you up for the more emotional scenes. We don’t know what he’s like privately. I also knew that he would change his accent and his voice depending on who he’s talking to. A lot of that was left to the imagination. I didn’t really talk to [anyone who knew Joe], but I watched a lot of his videos to let it seep in. A lot of it was just letting it happen naturally, the way you hang out with your uncle and start doing your uncle.
Is that your typical process?
I’m not an impersonation person, but it’s fun to find that thing. I moved around a lot as a kid, so I changed my accent a lot. I got used to that. I grew up where he grew up — Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas. And we [were born] within six weeks of each other. I know where he was, what music he was listening to. I was also a gay kid, not on a farm like he was, but the guys I had crushes on were.
He’s outside the mainstream, which you’ve been interested in exploring in the work you’ve written yourself. Was that an appeal?
Definitely. I like playing all kinds of characters, but it has been more queer lately. And I can relate [a bit to him], being a bit of an impresario myself with different types of projects, bringing people together — in his case, lording over them sometimes, while for me it’s hopefully more benevolent. His primal wounds were never healed, so he started attaching them to Carole and she did the same to him. They mistook each other for the people who hurt them in the past.
Considering their long feud, it’s crazy that they actually didn’t meet in real life very often.
They could have been friends if they had figured some stuff out, but she decided that these owners, who are mostly male, were taking advantage of the cats, and she wasn’t right. He found her hypocritical and she was equating him, probably, with a lot of the men who beat her. Which was not him. Of course, he fucked up more, because he tried to kill her. It’s hard to relate to that. But I can relate to other things. I lost a boyfriend to addiction; he lost two husbands. I could draw on that stuff for sure. And maybe he imitated his oppressor in one way and outdid them. He was a drag king as much as Hedwig was a drag queen.
How much does the costume and the hair and makeup add to your performance?
I found my audition mullet on Amazon — within 24 hours [of Tiger King‘s premiere] there was a Joe Exotic mullet available everywhere. I had these jeans from someone in London that zipped down the back. I flashed my asshole in the audition. Showrunners can be a bit conservative. I was like, “Come on, we can do this.” We’ve seen some penises [on TV] now, but [we draw the line at] the asshole.
As someone who is also a director, is it hard to resist the impulse to direct when you’re there strictly as an actor?
A little bit. We did have this ritual where before every scene I would go to [the writers] with ideas — often cutting stuff or punching up a joke. In the last episode, there’s a big scene where Joe has a fantasy speech to the audience, and [showrunner Etan Frankel] let me rewrite it, block it, design it in kind of a Broadway way. TV filmmakers don’t always edit themselves; they’re focusing more on the reality of it, not the big picture. And that is something that I’m always aware of. But I really enjoyed my directors, who really kept urging me to go crazy. I was always trying to be respectful and give the showrunner what he wanted, but also give him what he needed.
Joe was not thrilled about you being cast as him in the show.
He tweeted something when he saw a picture of me [in costume]: “He makes me look like a flaming faggot, when I’m just a hardworking gay man.” I did enjoy that. Femininity is a great demerit in the queer world of that time and place. It was unfortunate, because for all his pride, he’s really struggling with self-love.
While queerness isn’t the central focus of this show, it is a focus. How has queer storytelling changed over the course of your career?
None of the makers of this show were queer, but Kate and I brought our personalities to it. I don’t think it needed to be played by a queer person — Nicolas Cage could have been crazy as Joe. I don’t think there should be a hard-and-fast rule, but maybe the queer folks should be front of mind. But it’s acting. I’m still going to play straight people.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.