John Finlay considered himself to be a normal zoo employee before “Tiger King” became an overnight sensation. Now, thanks to Netflix’s stranger-than-fiction docu-series, a good part of the country knows his name, his face, and most importantly, his teeth.
“Tiger King” dove into the bizarre story of private zoo owner Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, to whom Finlay was in a relationship with for several years, but claims they never legally married. Finlay told Variety he doesn’t speak to Maldonado-Passage, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison for animal abuse and murder for hire.
While stuck inside due to coronavirus-related social distancing measures, Finlay now spends his days watching Netflix (though they didn’t give him a free account), making Cameo videos and relaxing with his fiancée. Over a Zoom call, he talked to Variety to set the record straight about some aspects he feels were exaggerated on camera and why the show felt like therapy.
How are you adjusting to your new fame?
It’s a tough adjustment, but it’s coming along. Being recognized in public is the weirdest thing, so far. I haven’t really been too many places besides Walmart or Lowe’s. They kind of fangirl out at times. Toward the end of the conversation, they ask for photos and to shake my hand.
What went through your head when Netflix first approached you about it?
It wasn’t about money or anything. It was a therapy thing for me because there was a lot of pent-up anger, rage, whatever you want to call it. I’m not one to go see a counselor. I’m usually one to work things out myself.
Do you feel like you got those emotions out?
Yeah, I actually have. I feel a whole lot better. I’ve been so busy the past three weeks that it’s been kind of hectic, but I’m working through it.
What do you want people to know about you that wasn’t in the show?
I’ve been six years clean since all that was aired. I was never married to Joe or to my baby’s mama — we’re engaged now. They never showed that because they knew I was engaged at the time. They never showed that tattoo fully done. They never showed what it was like to be around the animals or anything. They just focused on the drama.
What do you wish the series showed instead?
I’d show more of the positive. They never showed that we helped quite a few people with their last, dying wishes to be able to pet a tiger, pet a bear, pet a wolf. That gave me a different outlook on life, why a lot of people do what they do before they go and where I needed to be.
When you look back on your time at the zoo, is it a positive memory?
Yeah, because the animals are what everyone was really there for. It wasn’t the human factors of it. The animals and the experience are what I’ve missed the most.
How many times were you interviewed for the show?
At least five. Throughout the show, a lot of people focused on the one scene of me being shirtless. There were quite a few scenes throughout the whole thing where I had a shirt on. They suggested that I show [the tattoos] off. They kind of made it feel like I was the sexy one of the whole thing.
How soon after the show ended did you get the new teeth?
I had them in June of 2019. I had the procedure and the teeth put in that same day.
What was more painful, the teeth or the tattoos?
The teeth were more painful.
There’s a rumor that there’s another episode coming out. Has Netflix talked to you about that at all?
You’d have to ask Netflix about that one. They have five to six years of footage that they could’ve used. If they’re gonna use it, I don’t know.
Would you participate if there was a follow-up to “Tiger King”?
It would be nice, but that’s totally up to Netflix. If it was shined in the right light and done the right way, possibly. If it’s a Season 2, no, I’m not going to do it.
Who do you think should play you if “Tiger King” was made into a movie? What advice would you give them?
Channing Tatum is still No. 1, Shia LaBeouf is No. 2 and Tom Hardy is No. 3. It’s pretty much just be yourself, don’t hold back, have fun.
Joe’s music videos have been stuck in people’s heads since they watched the show. Are you a fan of his songs?
No, I heard those for years. I can’t even stand to listen to them now. I wasn’t really involved in too many, but it looks like I did. There were only maybe five that I was involved in.
Do you think Carole Baskin killed her husband?
I’m not going to speculate on whether she did it or not because apparently it has been reopened. I don’t speak negative on someone I don’t know.
Did you watch a lot of Netflix before the show came out? Did they give you a free account?
No, I didn’t even touch Netflix. I didn’t pay attention to it at all. That would’ve been nice, but no, they didn’t [laughs]. You would think that, but I’m still paying the money for it. I’m watching “Lucifer,” which is actually a really good series. And the serial killer one where his sister is a cop — “Dexter”! — always gotta watch some “Dexter.” Other than that, I’m watching movies like everyone else. I’d rather be outside doing something than being stuck inside.
What has it been like making Cameo videos?
I’m doing shoutouts to family members or friends or even nurses and firemen and all the frontline people. I’ve even done wedding shoutouts, anniversary shoutouts. They’ve all been fun. A lot of people want me to say something negative about Carole, but I’m not about that. I try not to put that out there.
Do you have any advice for people stuck inside during the coronavirus pandemic who are feeling down?
It’s going to end soon. We don’t know how soon, but keep a positive outlook on it. Don’t let anything get you down. Once you start letting it get you down, you’re going to get bored and restless and want to do something. Don’t go out there and do anything crazy.
You’ve discussed wanting to become a motivational speaker. What would your message be?
Anybody can change their life for the better. We can all have better lives if we just apply ourselves to it and have a positive attitude. Nothing is written in stone, “You have to be this way or you have to be that way.” We can all change our own lives of how everything should be.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)