John Cameron Mitchell Compares Playing Joe Exotic to Shakespeare: 'Chance of a Lifetime'

"What a great role," John Cameron Mitchell tells PEOPLE of playing Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage, who was imprisoned for a murder-for-hire plot against Carole Baskin, among other crimes

John Cameron Mitchell, Joe Exotic
John Cameron Mitchell, Joe Exotic. Photo: Mark Sagliocco/Getty; JoeExoticTV/Youtube

John Cameron Mitchell has taken on the role "of a lifetime" with his upcoming portrayal of Tiger King's Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage.

The Golden Globe nominee, 58, opened up to PEOPLE about taking on the role of the eponymous troubled lead in the upcoming Peacock limited series Joe Exotic, likening the project to Shakespeare. (Mitchell spoke to PEOPLE while promoting his iconic film 2006 Shortbus, which will be re-released in theaters with a new 4k restoration for its 15th anniversary. The film opens at the IFC Center in New York on January 26th, 2022 with a larger theatrical release to follow.)

"This adaptation is going to surprise people, because you really see the two leads as real people," he told PEOPLE of Maldonado-Passage and Carole Baskin (played by Kate McKinnon).

"You see them battered as children. You see the homophobia. It honors the 15-year marriage he had, that this docuseries didn't mention, with his husband dying of AIDS, and the homophobia forming him and making him into this harsh figure who is sympathetic in one way but megalomaniacal in another," Mitchell said. "What a great role. It's like playing Richard III crossed with, I don't know, the other Shakespeare character who was... Pericles. He's beaten all the way through his life."

"So it is a chance of a lifetime," he added. "I really had a blast."

Tiger King
Joe Exotic. Netflix

Although they "only had one scene together," Mitchell also raved about working with McKinnon, 37. "She doesn't think of herself as a dramatic actress, but she totally is," he said.

While Mitchell said both he and McKinnon stay true to their characters, he said their portrayal of Maldonado-Passage and Baskin was not an "impersonation."

"Neither of us are doing an impersonation. We're not copying every move and every vocal thing, because that can get cartoonish, right? You can get caught up in that," he explained. "So we're both doing our versions of them."

Mitchell was cast in April as Maldonado-Passage, 58, the founder of an exotic animal park in Oklahoma who has been imprisoned for various crimes, including paying Allen Glover $3,000 to kill Baskin, 60, an animal rights activist and rival big cat enthusiast. The series is based on season 2 of Wondery's Over My Dead Body podcast.

Maldonado-Passage and Baskin's feud was documented in Netflix's Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, which premiered on the streaming service in March 2020, becoming an early pandemic hit. The series reached 34 million U.S. viewers in its first 10 days on the streaming platform. Season 2 of Tiger King premieres later this month.

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