Though Jay Roach’s Bombshell and HBO’s Coastal Elites broached the subject, Showtime’s The Comey Rule is the first large-scale, dramatic production about the Trump administration—a responsibility that the limited series’ star Jeff Daniels and director/writer Billy Ray didn’t take lightly. It’s not just that they did extensive research on Comey, the former FBI director who oversaw the 2015 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails that many people think essentially handed Donald Trump the election (along with Russian interference, of course). Daniels and Ray were committed to presenting as expansive of a picture of Comey’s beliefs, the vulnerability of the U.S. political system, and the role the media played in covering the controversies.
Watching The Comey Rule, which just ended its two-night run on Showtime, is an often frustrating experience, not least of which because we’re in the midst of, to put it mildly, an incredibly contentious election season. It can feel like witnessing a trainwreck while you’re on a train. And given the role Comey played in the lead up to the 2016 election, the limited series could have done a better job of digging beyond the former FBI chief’s expressed motivations (found in A Higher Loyalty, the main source material for the show) for his actions. The series’ director and star acknowledge that frustration and anger, while also noting that the most scathing criticism is likely to come from the president himself. The A.V. Club spoke to Daniels and Ray about Comey’s Boy Scout façade, voter apathy, Black Lives Matter, and why this story of election interference is too important to be dismissed.
The A.V. Club: How did you settle on an approach to playing James Comey? Because you don’t want it feel like you’re doing an impersonation, but he is also somewhat recognizable.
Jeff Daniels: Yeah. I remember going into this and thinking how much of this externally should I do? How many mannerisms? There are two different schools on that, and they’re both legit. Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill [in Darkest Hour] is one example—a great example. What Charlize [Theron] did in Bombshell is another. It’s brilliant work, a lot of external [elements]: makeup, prosthetics, the whole deal. There’s an art to that. You also have Jimmy Stewart playing Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit Of St. Louis, and he’s playing Jimmy Stewart. So which one do you do?
With Comey, there aren’t a lot of ornaments on the tree to show everyone, “I’m not me, I’m someone else.” There are things, like vocally he would go up at the end of his sentences. He’s 6'8", so I put two-inch lifts in so I could at least feel taller. There’s an uprightness that happens when you do that. But Billy [Ray] and I just said, “Let’s let ’em see the actor playing [Comey]. Let’s let ’em see Jeff. They know it’s Jeff.” They know it’s me. But inside me is Jim, and that’s what you want to do—you want ’em to lean in, to get where Comey is, which is in here. That just means you have to think your way through each scene. You have to listen. And Jim was a great listener. He wanted differing opinions other than his own. He’s thoughtful, and he’s smart, and he takes it all in. And then he serves some things bigger than himself, which is the integrity of the FBI, the Department Of Justice. Comey believes in things that are bigger than him, like truth, justice, and the rule of law. That was a great North Star for me.
AVC: What was it like to sit across from Brendan Gleeson for the first time in character?
JD: You know, it wasn’t an impersonation of Trump. Alec Baldwin does a great comedic impersonation of Trump on SNL. Brendan went for something more internal, more private. And Comey mentioned that when he saw it—he said, “You know, there’s a private menace inside of Trump that you don’t see unless you’re sitting three feet away from him.” I guess that’s true. We’ll certainly find out in the next few months. I always thought of Trump as the Wizard Of Oz, you know? You pull the curtain back and it’s just a scared old man. But what Brendan did—he had the Trump hair and suit, but he was not a cartoon. Our first day at work was the loyalty dinner, and we didn’t rehearse it, we didn’t run lines. We just sat down and rolled camera. And he came in so prepared, so on it. That’s what you want. I told Billy when he hired me, “Get me great actors around me.” And Brendan was a great example of that.
AV: Throughout the limited series, Comey is referred to as a showboat and a Boy Scout. How did you find the man who existed between those two labels?
JD: I looked for it. I looked for the showboat, the self-righteousness. And I can see how, in a very gossipy, backstabbing town like [Washington] D.C.—not unlike Hollywood, in that regard—that if you didn’t like what he did, or didn’t like him or how he carried himself, then he was a “showboat” or “self-righteous.” Maybe it was Jim believing in a truth that was bigger than he was, and therefore was bigger than your truth and what you are. I can see that. But I didn’t see where Jim was trying to do something to show off. I didn’t find anything that said he was being self-righteous for personal gain. Yeah, he wrote the book, but he had to be talked into it. Yeah, he said yes to the series, but he really had to be talked into that. When you deep dive into what the guy is and what he was up against, you find out.
AVC: There are bound to be people who will feel that in the end, Comey got off easy in the series. What do you hope those people take away from this telling of his story?
JD: Well, right now, we’ve got one side of the story, which is Trump’s: “Comey is a liar.” So here’s the other side. It’s Comey’s point of view. It’s based on his book, but it’s not a direct lift. Billy Ray did a lot of research around it, to complete the picture. I think they’ll find that we’re just in a different place now. I remember when I watched it—and this didn’t strike me when I was shooting it—and it finished, I thought “Oh my god, it was just the beginning.” We had no idea. As a country, we thought Trump was going to be elected and Jim Comey was the reason Hillary [Clinton] wasn’t going to be elected. But if you watch the show, you’ll find out why he did what he did and why he really, in his mind, had no choice. And you’ll learn that. We’ll see if you feel differently after that.
The other thing is, in October 2016, Comey sent the letter to the Gang Of Eight, and it got leaked out and the media jumped on him. That is red meat for mainstream media. And they ran with that because it dragged eyeballs to the screens. People read about that. “He’s throwing the election for Hillary.” The media forgot about the fact that “grab ’em by the pussy” happened two days before. Now there’s a new story and it’s better and bigger. The best story of all [for the media] would have been “Hillary’s guilty. They found something.” Two days before the election, that’s the “best” story. But the FBI found nothing. So when they announced that they found nothing, that’s not a good story. It’s a retraction. It ends up on page four. Meanwhile, America isn’t paying attention anymore. People think she’s probably guilty, they just didn’t have time. They’ve already made their decision. So, it’s not covered as well as when he announced it. People aren’t paying attention anymore, and Hillary loses. There’s a shared responsibility here. Jim? Yes. The media? Yes. The uninformed American public? Yes. I’m just hoping that The Comey Rule, whether you like what he did or not, that you see what he did, and understand why. Then maybe we’ll all be a little bit more informed in October 2020 than we were in 2016. I think we are. I think we’re smarter. I’d like to think that people have been paying attention to the last three years.
AVC: You mentioned what the mood was in October 2016, and how so many people had no idea how things were going to turn out. But not long after, this hope began to grow, that people would finally wake up to the different inequities in this country and would start challenging that status quo.
JD: I think it’s an important time in the country’s history, and I think the protests that are happening are a part of that. They’re long overdue. It’s been over 400 years… I think George Floyd[’s death] woke people up. I’m reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. You read Colin Woodard’s Union about systemic racism and the caste system in this country for 400 years. And it’s long overdue. It’s time. On that side, yes. But there is a pushback that’s coming from the right, because this is a crossroads for the Republican Party and its existence. November 3rd. I said that on Nicole Wallace back in May 2019. It’s a referendum on the Republican Party. It really is. And I think even moreso now, with the systemic racism that’s reared its ugly head, and with Trump’s direct and indirect support of that. A lot of people in this country—not on the left or the right, but those people in the middle, who think “maybe things are okay?” They’ve gotta get off the porch. When we were doing [To Kill A] Mockingbird, Atticus Finch had to get off the porch and become involved with what was going on with Tom Robinson. He couldn’t just sit there and say, “No thanks, let another lawyer handle it. I’m not gonna get involved.” People have to get involved on November 3rd. And I’d like to think that 20 percent in the middle will be more informed, and will make a better, more informed decision on November 3rd.
AVC: As an artist, do you feel a responsibility to reflect what’s really going on this country?
JD: I’m not sold on the idea that a celebrity should run out and tell everybody how to vote. Because you’ve watched a movie or two that I did, that you might listen to me. I’m not sure about the value in that. But when you’re given an opportunity to do a project that matters, that will be relevant to something as important as the crossroads that this country’s gonna face in November, you have to do that. That’s the responsibility I have as an artist, that when given the opportunity, that’s gotta be on the plus side of the column. That’s a reason to do it. I’ve been lucky in that, with To Kill A Mockingbird and Gettysburg. The Newsroom, certainly—that “greatest country in the world” speech, or not being the greatest country in the world. Aaron [Sorkin] was onto something. People didn’t like it. A lot of people loved that speech, a lot of people hated it. I remember taking a friend around the Newsroom set, and he turned to me and said, “You know it is the greatest country in the world. You know that, right?” And I said, “Well, depends on the day of the week, I guess.” I certainly think that at this point, after George Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter and people looking at systemic racism, that we’re not the greatest country in the world. But like Aaron said in that speech, if we fix things like that, if we address things like that, then maybe we can be the greatest country in the world. I think that’s what Aaron was getting at, and I think it is more true today than when we did the speech.
AVC: The movie Bombshell was criticized for playing softball with people like Megyn Kelly and other major players at Fox News who basically enabled Trump. It’s possible people are going to feel that way about The Comey Rule, that they’re going to feel it lets James Comey off a little easy. What would you say to people who might feel that way?
Billy Ray: I think it’s going to be tough for people to come into the movie without a preconceived notion. There are going to be a lot of people from the right and from the left who are going to walk into this series already hating it, which is fine. What the series asks you to do is be James Comey for five minutes. Here are the circumstances. Here are the constraints. Here are the power dynamics. Here are the issues. What would you have done in his shoes? I don’t think we take it easy on him at all. I think we are very, very critical of him, and we give voice to people who are very critical of him. But I suppose it’s possible to interpret the movie another way? That wasn’t my intention. I was really just trying to play fair.
AVC: How did you arrive at this particular characterization of Trump? He has so many recognizable mannerisms and speech patterns, you could’ve started anywhere.
BR: I think as a species, we are what we do. Our actions define us. So the very first thing as you look at Trump is, you say, What’s his behavior? What’s he do? What are the kinds of decisions he makes, and how does he arrive at those decision? What does he value? What does he not value? Under pressure, what kind of choices does he make? That tells you everything that he is. What does he want, and how does he get it? That’s true in the writing phase and true in the directing phase. It certainly impacted how I wrote the script, but it also impacted how I talked to Brendan about how Trump was going to be played. We weren’t going to do a cartoon. We were going to be doing the first dramatic interpretation of Trump ever attempted. That was a great opportunity and a great responsibility, and we had to get it right.
AVC: To what extent did you actually quote Trump himself in the script?
BR: We quoted him overwhelmingly, everywhere that I reasonably could. The staggering majority of Trump’s dialogue in this series comes from things he said in the public square.
AVC: After a period of hesitation, Showtime did ultimately did decide to move forward with airing The Comey Rule before the election. Do you expect to see Trump’s critical response?
BR: [Laughs.] I imagine we’ll be on his radar, yes. And I imagine he’ll feel compelled to reply.
AVC: It’s so strange, because as a filmmaker, you’re used to engaging to some extent with criticism. But this is whole other thing. Did you do anything behind the scenes or in pre-production to make your cast and team—anyone who might not be used to dealing with such high-profile subjects—feel comfortable with tackling something this controversial?
BR: There were a couple of actors who passed without reading the script, because they were just afraid to be a part of it. But the people who chose to be a part of it all felt like it was their civic duty. I think I wound up getting a net positive out of the level of controversy that we’re going to be dealing with.
AVC: When you watch the whole thing, you do get angry, which means there’s the potential for the series to hook people who may not have been watching things as closely while they happened. Is that one of your hopes, that people who maybe haven’t been paying as much attention as they should have will see that this isn’t just a failure of a person, but also the failure of an institution?
BR: My hope is that people will come away from this with a much deeper understanding of how their government actually works, and how the FBI actually functions. I know they’ll have a deeper understanding of James Comey, and why he made the decisions that he made. I think they’ll have a much deeper understanding of Donald Trump and the kind of chief executive that he is, and what that’s cost us. I don’t presume to tell anyone how to vote, but I do think they should know what the Russians did in 2016 to our election, and what they are trying to do now. That’s not a matter of conjecture, that’s a matter of fact. And they should be aware of that before they go to the polls in 2020.
We’re telling a story that is happening right now. It’s happening simultaneous to this conversation. Everything that is happening in the Trump presidency right now, the seeds of it were planted in 2016 and we’ve seen the tree. We know exactly what it is now. And we as a country can choose to face that honestly or not. I think we will.
AVC: When Trump was first elected, there was this concern among creatives that you couldn’t even parody someone like him because there’s nothing fictional you could write that would eclipse the reality. You’ve said you wanted to present him as more of a dramatic character, which means giving him more dimension. For the sake of your story, he can’t just be a one-note villain. How do you even summon the empathy to write him that way?
BR: [Pauses.] I was trying to tell a story about how heartbreaking it is to be a public servant. Donald Trump is a necessary part of that storytelling. And if I’m going to be regarded as someone who played fair, then I have to put my own feelings about that character aside and try to get inside his head and think about what he wants, and how he’s going about trying to get it. I didn’t want to make something that people could label a Hollywood liberal hit job. Because I don’t want this to be dismissed. I think the subject matter’s too important. I think we achieved that. We were very mindful of it, in every step of the filmmaking process.