Kate McKinnon is no stranger to portraying eccentric characters.
The comedian has inhabited quite a few on Saturday Night Live, including a quippy Russian correspondent from a remote village and an oddball co-owner of a cat adoption center. So when the time came to fashion animal print blouses and play animal rights activist Carole Baskin, the CEO of Big Cats Rescue featured in Netflix’s breakout docuseries Tiger King, for Peacock’s limited series Joe vs. Carole (out March 3), McKinnon was more than ready to sink her teeth into the zany role.
“I like weirdos,” McKinnon tells EW at the virtual press junket for the series. “I’m a weirdo in real life. I am always looking out for people who pop into our culture who are like, legit weirdos.” When she first tuned into Wondery’s Over My Dead Body podcast (on which Joe vs. Carole is based), “I thought, ‘Huh. Well, she’s a real character,'” McKinnon says.
It didn’t take too long for McKinnon, who also serves as executive producer, to learn there was more to the controversial activist beneath the surface.
The series from Etan Frankel (Shameless, Friday Night Lights) centers on McKinnon’s big cat enthusiast, who learns that Oklahoman zoo owner Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage (John Cameron Mitchell) is breeding and using his cats for profit. When she sets out to shut down his operations, the claws come out and an anarchic rivalry ensues — one that involves a murder-for-hire plot against Baskin. (The real Exotic remains behind bars for attempting to facilitate the death of his rival.)
The series fictionalizes much of the accounts in Tiger King and Tiger King 2, infusing some made-up moments not intended to reflect any person (per a title card reiterated before every episode), but McKinnon maintains her portrayal is very much rooted in Baskin’s own words and experiences. To prepare for the role, she turned to Baskin’s dozens of video diaries shared on her YouTube, gaining insight into the events that shaped her: an abusive first marriage, her affair with second husband Don Lewis and the fallout of his disappearance, a hunger for independence stifled by the men in her life.
“After watching the [Netflix docuseries] and doing more research, I began to see that there was a lot going on underneath all of that,” McKinnon says. “So I thought both of those things deserved telling: the part that’s wacky and fun that people have seen, and then the part that’s underneath that… I learned so much about every detail of her life. That really informed how I was able to build the character and understand where she’s coming from.” She quips, “How did anyone do anything before YouTube?”
McKinnon hasn’t met Baskin, noting, “It’s sometimes complicated when you’re playing someone to meet them in real life, but I did turn to her own words and experiences in creating this character. And it is a character. I mean, it’s certainly based on her, but I don’t claim that everything about this character is about Carole.”
Kyle MacLachlan, who portrays Howard Baskin, Carole’s mild-mannered third husband and fiercest defender, agrees with his costar. Joe vs. Carole provides a much more nuanced portrait of the subjects, says MacLachlan.
“Creating a character is a puzzle,” MacLachlan tells EW. “It’s about getting in and figuring it out as much as you can, and [immersing] yourself in whatever the stuff is that makes them [who they are], and kind of reform it into my version of a character. People like Carole and Howard are complex… The thing that I was most excited about [with] the show is you discover where these people came from [and] how they became who they are based upon some really wonderful flashback sequences and momentous moments in their lives.”
MacLachlan turned to Howard’s impassioned social media posts, among other resources, to prepare for his role. In the series, Baskin’s husband plays a more central role, a gentle mediator between her and Exotic’s legal and personal quarrels. (It would be criminal to underuse, as MacLachlan’s costar Mitchell calls him, “Sir Kyle MacLachlan,” after all.)
“Some of his posts were in defense of what they were trying to do, trying to set the record straight,” MacLachlan says. “He’s a very straightforward but highly emotional person who really feels things, and you can see that.” Like McKinnon, MacLachlan contends his portrayal isn’t an imitation of Howard, but rather a homage.
“It’s about capturing the feeling of, the energy maybe, certainly the relationship, but part of it is what we see and part of it is what we created based on their close relationship,” he says. “They’re a lot of fun. They’re quirky. So we just let ourselves explore that instead of saying, ‘This is how they really would’ve done it.'”
All eight episodes of Joe vs. Carole are available on Peacock now.