In the Spring of 2020, if people weren’t talking about the global pandemic, the conversation likely veered to Netflix’s Tiger King. The docuseries spun the larger-than-life tale of the rivalry between two big cat enthusiasts, Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, and the murder-for-hire plot that landed Exotic in prison.
Now the tale is getting the limited series treatment in Joe vs. Carole, coming to Showcase in Canada on March 23 and currently streaming on Peacock in the US. Ahead of the premiere, we spoke with Sam Keeley, who plays John Finlay. Keeley told us about his dramatic transformation, and how he hopes this series helps humanize the people at the centre of this true-crime story.
I did not recognize you at first because your transformation into John Finlay was so fantastic. What can you share about the experience of immersing yourself in this character?
That was a big thing for me. We all know John Finlay through the Netflix documentary. Personally, it all started with the accent. I’m from Ireland, so I worked very hard on [his accent] three to four months prior. For the longest time, I was an Irish guy doing an accent. It wasn’t until I was surrounded by our incredible hair and makeup team in Brisbane that I truly started to discover John.
I was very fortunate in the sense that I got to play him over several years. We started when he was quite young, and developed him through his time at the park. Ultimately, we got to the place where he’s the shirtless, heavily tattooed and toothless John Finlay that we know and fell in love with. I didn’t believe myself until the costume, hair and makeup teams got their hands on me and made the transformation. Once we got to that stage, it was pretty hard to ignore. They did an amazing job.
This series finds humanity in these people, and they’re not just presented to viewers as caricatures. Was it important to you that you’d be playing something more than the sensational, over-the-top portrayals we’ve seen so far?
To be honest, that was the only purpose I had playing this role. I felt massive pressure once I got offered the part. I identified with John Finlay and felt for him. When I watched the docuseries, he was my favourite person in it. But there were elements of the documentary that felt one-dimensional. We saw a version of these people that I don’t think is true to who they are, and why they got into the situations they were in.
My job as an actor is to find the humanity in every role that I play. I wanted to know what it was that got John Finlay to that place. Obviously, I took certain creative licenses to get there, but I did a lot of research. I listened to interviews, watched footage of him and looked at photographs. My main goal was to try and not have this guy be portrayed as the shirtless, toothless meth head. We wanted to see why this man was in the position he was in, why he made the decisions he made, and ultimately what led him on the path that he was on. I wanted to play him with the degree of humanity that he deserves, and that all of these characters deserve.
Watching this story unfold is one unbelievable moment after another. Was there one aspect of it that you found the most surprising?
There are so many moments, but it has to be when Saff got his arm ripped off and chose to have it amputated. It was within a week after the amputation that he was working in the park again, showing people that he wasn’t going to let it get in the way of his passion for the animals, they’re just following their nature. What a brave thing for that person to do. It was a moment that stuck out to me. I’d be feeling sorry for myself if my arm was mauled by a tiger.
What do you hope that viewers get out of this series that they didn’t get from other accounts of this story?
We’re offering a point of view that hasn’t been seen. The Wondery podcast did a beautiful job at filling in the gaps that the Netflix docuseries left out, even though the podcast came before the documentary. We’re presenting an objective view of this whole situation. It’s a version of this story that humanizes these people and gives them some dignity back.
The Netflix docuseries was incredible and I’m a huge fan of it, but there was an element that was lost as to why and how these people got to where they ended up, and why they made the decisions that they made. Our show offers the public an insight into these people’s lives a little bit more than we would ordinarily see. That’s what everybody in this whole situation deserves, even though some horrible things happened to people and animals. There are many facets to this story, and we’re offering a broader picture. I hope that’s what viewers take from it.
Photos Courtesy of Peacock