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Nat Wolff on Finding the Humanity in Tiger King

Screen star Nat Wolff discusses doing justice to the tragic role of Joe Exotic’s husband Travis Maldonado in Joe vs Carole, the dramatic recreation of the Tiger King story.

Words by John Pearson and Pete Samson
Portraits by Austin Hargrave
Creative by Alison Edmond

Nat Wolff may not seem like an obvious choice to play Joe Exotic’s troubled husband Travis Maldonado in the upcoming drama version of the infamous ‘Tiger King’ story.

He was born into a creative family, raised by a jazz musician father and an actress-producer mother in Manhattan. Alongside brother Alex, he was a Nickelodeon child star in the tween-favorite musical comedy show ‘The Naked Brother Band’. Then as his young fans matured, so did Nat’s work, earning praise and new devotees for his roles in ‘Paper Towns’ and ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, two movies based on books by the popular young adult author John Green. More grown-up movies have followed, and more seasoned music too, with the brothers now releasing tunes as Nat & Alex Wolff, while coming up on screen is a role in Amazon Prime’s dark workplace thriller ‘The Consultant’, alongside Christoph Waltz.

But first, Nat plays Travis in ‘Joe vs Carole’, the Peacock Original released on the streaming platform on March 3. Travis’ upbringing was a world away from Nat’s, and he arrived at Exotic’s zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, as a drug addicted teenager in 2013. He would go on to marry his boss, before shooting himself in the head and dying aged 23, in a shocking scene captured by the Netflix series.

The original ‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness’ documentary series was more popular than banana bread in the early months of the original Covid lockdown, with more than 64 million households watching the show in its first month of release in March 2020. But Nat and his colleagues have identified what could be added to this very familiar story in its dramatic retelling, and that’s humanity.

He says, “In a certain way, I felt for everybody in this show. It became a thing of memes and ridicule, and people making fun of them. But they were all victims of abuse and trauma and I think they’re deserving of some understanding. The series really shows the cruelty towards the animals, but the people are kind of like the animals too. They’re also being abused and kept captive, and I saw Travis as being like one of the tiger cubs.

“I think this version of the story is actually maybe even more real than the documentary series. Nothing against the documentary series, it’s just when the cameras are on, people change, and this gives a look into the way they were when the camera wasn’t rolling. And they were all humans. I like the idea of taking people who have been ridiculed in the public’s imagination, and giving them a heart and soul. I think we were able to do that, so I’m super proud of this show.”

Nat Wolff wears terry jacket by BOTTEGA VENETA; pants by FRAME; tank by UNIQLO; jewelry by DAVID YURMAN // 📸 : Austin Hargrave

Nat, 27, brings his natural warmth and kindness, and maturity that comes from almost two decades in the business, to find that heart and soul in the role of Travis, fully aware he was bringing a real person, who deserved more than a caricature portrayal, back to life.

“I spoke to the director of the documentary series, and she said to me that Travis was the only universally-liked person in the entire group,” explains Nat, who also watched unseen documentary footage as part of his preparation for the role.

“There was something about him that was boyish and enthusiastic, and he was really excited about the animals and being there. He was a very lovable guy, so his downward trajectory is epically sad. He had this horrible, traumatic childhood, but when he got to this zoo, he sort of found himself.

“And then, through the drama of what happened between Joe and Carole, they started to lose money, he got back on drugs, and it really starts to fall apart. It was maybe the most painful experience I’ve had acting, in terms of having a hard time shaking it at the end of the night. Because he’s a real guy, there were moments where I did really feel him.”

Amid tackling some tough scenes and issues, there was also plenty of fun for the cast who traveled to Australia to shoot the series, which stars John Cameron Mitchell as Joe Exotic and Kate McKinnon as his rival Carole Baskin. And, unlike the original documentary, no tigers were harmed in the making of this series.

“We didn’t have tigers, so we had these dogs, big Great Danes and things, who were playing tigers,” Nat explains. “And you know the never work with children and animals thing? Well, sometimes you get animals that are really well trained. These dogs were not well trained, and they were so fun because of it. They would always walk off in the middle, and you’d be like, ‘Oh, there goes another tiger.’”

Now, ahead of the hotly anticipated release, Nat becomes the latest subject of our ‘Who the F*** Are You?’ profile, answering the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are. He talks influences, mentors, being encouraged as a teen by Daniel Day-Lewis… and going camping without a sleeping bag.

Nat Wolff wears jacket and pants by SAINT LAURENT; shirt by THE KOOPLES; tank by H & M // 📸 : Austin Hargrave

Who the f*** are you?

I am Nathaniel Marvin Motherf***in’ Wolff! I’m a musician, I’m an actor, and I’m a son, a brother, a grandson, and a friend… and I’m figuring it out.

How are you feeling right now?

I’m feeling great. I just got back from a week in the desert with my friend, Austin. I grew up in New York, and I have never even been camping, so I went camping for the first time. I was in Death Valley, and I slept in a tent. And as I had never camped before, I didn’t bring a f***ing sleeping bag, so I was shivering through the night in this tent, and the tent’s about to blow off. Then I tried to start a fire, and the fire starts shooting everywhere, so I’m like, ‘Okay, screw the fire!’ Then I went and stayed in a yurt in the Mojave Desert, and it was the most magical thing. I went to the sand dunes, went to the salt plains, went to this thing called the borax fields. I had never even heard of borax before. But it was an amazing week, so I came back feeling refreshed and inspired, and ready for my Mr Feelgood interview!

Nat Wolff wears pajama set by AMIRI; tank by UNIQLO; sunglasses by JACQUES MARIE MAGE; loafers by JOHN LOBB // 📸 : Austin Hargrave

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in New York City. I don’t know anything else, obviously, but I loved it because I was introduced to all different kinds of food, music, museums, plays. My dad’s a jazz musician, so I would go to see a lot of jazz. My brother and I were in Washington Square Park, busking when we were kids. I feel like I took a lot of things for granted, just living in New York, that you’d be able to see on a day-to-day, that now I look back I go, ‘Wow, I was really exposed to a lot of great culture when I was young.’ The negative is that I didn’t get to spend that much time in nature really, which since getting older I’ve really appreciated.

What excites you?

Great art excites me. I love great books, I love great music, I love great poetry. I was so excited by ‘Get Back’, The Beatles documentary. That blew my mind. I’m such a big Beatles fan, but just to watch how chaotic their creativity was… And I have just been reading a lot of Joan Didion, because she passed away, and I realized I hadn’t read any of her stuff. So I’m really inspired by her. Sometimes I get really inspired by the characters I play too, because I’m really interested in figuring people out. We all just have such a small sphere, and when you play a character, you go, wow, it’s this whole other world, but really, we’re not that different, and you realize how similar you are to everyone. That is why it’s such a beautiful profession, I think.

Nat Wolff wears shirt by DIOR; pant by BURBERRY; tank by UNIQLO; jewelry by DAVID YURMAN // 📸 : Austin Hargrave

What scares you?

Well, I was having a weird fear of heights that came to me when I was 21, and then over this last week, I feel like I’ve conquered it. I was climbing up this mountain, my friend climbs a lot, and I got halfway and said, “What the f*** did you do to me?” I was having a panic attack. And he was like, “You’re already halfway. It’s just as scary to go down as it is to go all the way up.” And I was like, “Oh, f*** you.” And then I got up [to the top], and I was like, “Hey, this isn’t so bad.” But I’m scared of the state of our country, I’m scared of the state of our environment. And I get super scared of spiders, not little spiders, but just the freaky big huntsman Australian spiders. They’re not supposed to hurt you, but they’re on the ceiling, and you’re sleeping at night, and they’re staring at you, and that’s terrifying.

What is your proudest achievement?

I just made a new album with my brother, and I’m super proud of it. We think it’s going to be called Table for Two. We did it in 11 days, and we didn’t overthink anything. We just kind of went in and did it, just ourselves. It was a really incredible experience. And with movies, I did this movie, ‘Palo Alto’, when I was 17 and I was just figuring out acting, and I actually had Daniel Day-Lewis tell me, “That was an amazing performance, and I’m really excited to see where your career goes. I’ve seen that character played a lot, but I’ve never seen it the way you did it.” So I was really proud of that, and I’ve kind of kept that. Because sometimes you do jobs, and you have the best of intentions, and then they come out in a way that’s embarrassing or not the way you want it to be. But having that kind of validation when I was 17 is something that’s helped me.

Nat Wolff wears coat and pants by ALEXANDER MCQUEEN; tank and white socks by UNIQLO; jewelry by DAVID YURMAN; loafers by JOHN LOBB // 📸 : Austin Hargrave

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

My dad was really sick in 2015, 2016, and I had this movie coming out that I had to promote. I was flying back and forth and getting calls from my mom saying, “We don’t know if your dad’s going to make it through the night.” My dad is amazing now and super-healthy and stuff, but it was just a horrible, horrible time. And having to kind of balance the two worlds, of trying to be smiley and doing this kind of thing — like speaking to you, which now I love — but just at 20 years old, going through that, I was just not in the headspace for it. So that was the most difficult thing. And then coming out of that was a real gift.

Who was your greatest mentor, and what did they teach you?

I’ve had a bunch. I have an amazing acting teacher, who taught me to breathe and to take a beat. Also, I worked with Vincent D’Onofrio, who of all the actors I’ve worked with, really took me under his wing the most. I’m such a huge fan of his, and he taught me that the struggle is the performance. And my other mentors would be my dad as a musician, and my mom as a writer and an actor.

Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?

As a little kid, my fictional hero was Agent Cody Banks. I f***ing loved Agent Cody Banks, and I loved Harry Potter. I love Elwood in ‘Harvey’, Mr Smith in ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’, or one of those Jimmy Stewart characters that’s just so pure and good and true. And then my real-life heroes are… I mean, there are so many, but Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Tom Waits, Daniel Day-Lewis, JD Salinger, Mary Oliver, Kendrick Lamar, John Coltrane, Neil Young, Michael Jordan, Mark Ruffalo, Sam Shepard, my dad, my mom, my brother, and my friend Austin, who I went to the desert with. So many…

Nat Wolff wears pajama set by AMIRI; tank by UNIQLO; sunglasses by JACQUES MARIE MAGE; vintage ring, stylist’s own// 📸 : Austin Hargrave

What’s your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?

I think it’s probably a necklace. It doesn’t have to be a single necklace, but just having a necklace, because I know when I don’t have a necklace on, and I have my shirt off or something, I feel extra naked. There’s something about having a necklace.

What music did you love aged 13, and do you still love it now?

I loved Velvet Underground, I loved Kanye, and I loved Neil Young. And yeah, I still love all of it now. And I’ve always loved The Beatles, since I was like five or six. I also loved James Taylor when I was a little kid, and I had this album cover with him on, and he was like this young, beautiful guy. And then I came into the kitchen one time, and my parents were watching TV, and they were like, “This is James Taylor.” And he was older and bald, and I started crying, and said, “That’s not James Taylor! I know James Taylor!”

Nat Wolff wears jacket and pants by SAINT LAURENT; shirt by THE KOOPLES; tank by H & M; socks by UNIQLO; jewelry by DAVID YURMAN; loafers by JOHN LOBB // 📸 : Austin Hargrave

What’s the most inspiring book you have ever read?

Probably ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, the [Rainer Maria] Rilke book. Living the questions, and keep asking the questions. It reminds me of when you were asking about mentors, it was one of the things that got me excited about having mentors, because this is really the way that knowledge is passed down. And I was really inspired by ‘Into the Wild’.

What’s a movie that left a lasting impression on you?

When I was a kid, I saw ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’, and Dustin Hoffman’s character reminded me so much of my dad. I think it was such a good performance, it reminded everybody of everybody’s dad, you know? And Meryl Streep was so amazing in it. There was something about that movie that made me want to be an actor.

Nat Wolff wears denim jacket, denim pants by ALEXANDER MCQUEEN; jewelry by DAVID YURMAN; tank and socks by UNIQLO; loafers by JOHN LOBB // 📸 : Austin Hargrave

What is your favorite word or saying?

“That’s a horse of a different color.” It’s just something that my grandma and my mom used to say. It means that’s a whole other thing, a whole other ballgame.

What do you want people to say at your funeral?

He was the oldest man that ever lived, and he always smelled good.

Nat Wolff wears coat, pants and sunglasses by ALEXANDER MCQUEEN; tank and socks by UNIQLO; jewelry by DAVID YURMAN; loafers by JOHN LOBB // 📸 : Austin Hargrave

And finally, a quickfire five favorites…

Car?

I don’t have one. I grew up in New York!

Sports team?

The Lakers. Even though I grew up in New York, I decided when I was young to be a fan of Kobe and Shaq, and I’ve been a Lakers fan ever since.

Meal?

Pasta with some eggs and some sausage and bacon and a bunch of that shit.

Grooming product?

I have a cool leave-in hair product that a hair stylist gave to me on a movie once because my hair can go crazy. It’s DermOrganic Leave-In Product. I’ll travel around, and I’ll have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and DermOrganic Leave-In Product.

Clothing label?

As a kid, I loved everything Nike because I played basketball, and I was so into Michael Jordan. And I’ve been hooked up with great suits by Prada, so shout-out to them.

Nat Wolff wears jacket and pants by SAINT LAURENT; shirt by THE KOOPLES; socks by UNIQLO; jewelry by DAVID YURMAN; loafers by JOHN LOBB // 📸 : Austin Hargrave

‘Joe vs Carole’ is available on Peacock on March 3


Styling by Raina Silberstein for Art Department

Grooming by Sussy Campos for Art Department using R+Co and Tom Ford Beauty

Pete began his career on Fleet Street more than two decades ago, and has worked for some of the world’s biggest news, entertainment, and wellness companies as a writer, editor, and media executive. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to help demystify the world of personal development, and to encourage men to discuss and improve their mental health, by sharing the wisdom and lessons learned of inspiring leaders in their field.

John is a world-renowned male model who has been the face of countless leading fashion houses. During his 36-year modeling career he has also moonlighted as an actor, writer, restauranteur, editor, and producer. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to provide a safe space for candid discussion and sharing ideas.

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