‘The Comey Rule’: Jeff Daniels and Billy Ray on Capturing Trump’s America, ‘Heartbreaking’ Work of Public Servants

Ben Mark Holzberg www.benmark.ca
Ben Mark Holzberg

Although “The Comey Rule” is debuting just slightly more than a month ahead of the 2020 presidential election, creator-director Billy Ray did not make the series to change anyone’s vote.

“The reason I did this was because I felt that the Russians had had a profound and unhappy effect on our political process in 2016 and I wanted the American public to know about that before they went to the polls in 2020,” he said during a virtual panel for the Showtime limited series on Thursday.

Ray was very vocal months ago in wanting to ensure “The Comey Rule” aired ahead of the upcoming presidential election. The four-hour, two-night event is now set to premiere Sept. 27 on Showtime, concluding the following night, on Sept. 28.

Ray adapted events in part from former FBI director James Comey’s book, “A Higher Loyalty,” but also from research and interviews he did with people on “both sides of the aisle.” When he sat down to write the scripts, he shared, he had voices that were “critical” of James Comey.

“I’m not out to marbleize him. It’s not my goal to have people erecting statues of Jim Comey or tearing them down,” Ray said, adding he wanted to focus on telling a story of how “heartbreaking” it can be to be a public servant at this time in America.

“We have a tendency to misunderstand something pretty fundamental,” he said, in that “The FBI is a group of people who are stewards. … It’s not the buildings that make decisions [but the people within them]. Look at our post office with Louis DeJoy running it compared to the post office with a human being running it.”

Additionally, “we had an opportunity to take them inside the rooms where these decisions were being made; [we had an opportunity to allow the audience to] be Jim Comey for five minutes and see what they would have done. That, to me, is the power of the story being told.”

Ray admitted that telling such a story, especially as events around Trump’s political reign are still unfolding, comes with an “enormous responsibility and enormous obligation, but as long as we’re being truthful in our storytelling I feel that we’re the match for that.”

The show follows Comey’s work under the Obama administration (with Kingsley Ben-Adir portraying the 44th President of the United States) and continues through his time working for Donald Trump (with Brendan Gleeson in that role). It includes depictions of events in the not-so-distant past, including the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in June 2016, something Ray wanted to include to “show how much work [Comey] had to do and how ugly so much of the work was — and to remind America that we are capable of something so horrific.”

Filming that was “upsetting for us,” he admitted, noting his goal was to keep the scenes “informative” rather than “gratuitous.” To deal with the triggering content, “we actually had healthcare workers and mental health professionals on set that day because there were a number of people in the crew who needed care — literally needed to leave set that day because they found it so upsetting,” Ray continued.

A major part of this series, which comes in the second episode, is a dinner between Trump and Comey during which Trump tells Comey he needs his loyalty, effectively asking Comey to cross the apolitical line his role requires. That eight-and-a-half page scene, Ray and Daniels shared, was the first one Daniels and Gleeson shot together, and it was also the only scene that took all day to shoot.

“We had 51 days to shoot, essentially, two movies,” Ray said, noting they normally did four or five scenes a day. Additionally, this loyalty dinner scene was the only one for which the real-life Comey was on set to witness and offered input.

For this scene, there was “no rehearsal; we didn’t run lines,” Daniels said. “It was, ‘Nice to meet you’ in the makeup trailer when we were both putting on our hair.”

“Right after the line, ‘I need loyalty,’ we’re going to start cutting the lights on the side of the set so that five minutes later the only light is going to be the light that’s right above you so it seems like you’re on an island. Just go with it,” Ray recalled telling the actors. “And they both did.”

But Daniels also said that having Gleeson opposite him in that scene helped him get Comey’s physicality down. “Here comes Trump. He’s just coming at you with this loyalty stuff and it backed me up. Jim was there that day and he said, ‘You got my posture.’ It just comes with what you’re being hit with,” he said.

“I put two-inch lifts in my shoes, which got me to 6 [foot] 5 [inches tall],” he noted. “I’m still not six-eight, but I could act the other three inches.” When Ray came to him with the project, Daniels said the one thing he asked was, “Can you get me great actors? Will the studio, will the network pay for great actors around me because I bounce off them, I use them, half my performance is based on the other actors.”

In addition to Gleeson and Ben-Adir, the cast around Daniels includes Michael Kelly, Scoot McNairy, Holly Hunter, Jennifer Ehle, Steven Pasquale, Oona Chaplin, Peter Coyote, William Sadler, T.R. Knight and Brian d’Arcy James. They all portray real people, as well, but some political figures, such as Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani are shown through news footage instead. This decision, Ray previously told Variety, was because he wanted to “remind people in a visceral way of the onslaught of news coverage that bombarded us all during that election and its aftermath. Simultaneously I thought it was important to bring a sense of realism to the series, especially when it comes to some of the individuals who are central to the narrative but we chose creatively not to depict through actors.

“Trust me, we tried to cast Rudy Giuliani but quickly realized that no actor could do him justice,” he said.

Ray admitted that Gleeson first said no to playing Trump when he was offered the role, but about a month later he changed his mind. (“I never asked him [why],” Ray said, but Daniels was convinced “his manager was leaning on him really hard; his manager was going, ‘We want him to do this; he needs to do this.'”) Currently, Ray shared Gleeson is in Ireland, and the auteur is happy about that because it means Gleeson is “far away” from the flack he’s “going to get from our current president.”

On the other hand, Ray half-joked that “it’s likely the IRS will start auditing my taxes” after Trump sees the project.