It was an unexpected gift of the early pandemic: Netflix’s addictive Tiger King docu-series, chronicling the twisted rivalry between big cat aficionados Carole Baskin and Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, distracted the nation at a particularly terrifying time.
A whole year later, there are two scripted TV series in the works based on Tiger King. The one in development at Amazon stars Nicholas Cage as Exotic — which, sure, we can already imagine what that’ll be like. The other series from NBCUniversal sounds way more intriguing: Kate McKinnon is playing Baskin, and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) was just crowned the “Tiger King.”
This is genius casting, as Mitchell himself pointed out: “I’m thrilled to take on the role of this modern folk antihero,” he said in a statement. “Joe and I are the same age and like him, I grew up queer in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas so I feel like I know a little bit about this guy and his desperate attempt to conquer an inhospitable world.”
NBCU’s take on Tiger King is based on the Wondery podcast hosted by Robert Moor. It centers on Baskin’s quest to shut down Exotic’s for-profit big cat breeding enterprise. But Carole has a dicey past of her own, and Joe ruthlessly tries to expose her, taking things way too far in the process. In 2019, the “Tiger King” was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for wildlife abuse and trying to hire a hitman to murder Baskin for $3,000.
Anyhow, Mitchell is an inspired choice to embody the pompous and problematic figure. “It’s clear that an over-the-top character like Joe needed someone very special,” said Steven O’Neill, the casting and talent executive behind the NBCU series. “We are so excited to have John Cameron Mitchell, an adored icon of the LGBTQ+ community, take on this compelling role.”
Mitchell is best known for co-creating and starring in Hedwig and the Angry Inch off-Broadway in the late 1990s and reviving the role in a film adaptation, which he also directed. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance and won Best Director at the 2001 Sundance Festival. Hedwig also won a Tony Award for Best Revival when Mitchell brought it to Broadway in 2014. Recently, he’s been leaning into TV roles on Hulu’s Shrill and The Good Fight on Paramount+.
The Tiger King drama is still sort of playing out in real time. Maldonado-Passage lobbied Trump for a pardon in the eleventh hour of his presidency and felt so confident about his prospects that his team sent a stretch limo to await his release from prison. It never came. Meanwhile, the dubious duo who took over Exotic’s zoo, Jeff and Lauren Lowe, recently jumped on the NFT bandwagon and have been auctioning off digital images of the Tiger King crew, to Joe’s dismay.