The mark of a great actor is the ability to deliver a powerful performance, even without a lot of noise. That’s what Jeff Daniels does in Billy Ray’s ripped-from-the-headlines two-part limited series “The Comey Rule,” which hit Showtime September 27, 2020 for maximum impact ahead of the November election. For this docudrama, Daniels took on a well-known figure in recent American history — FBI Director James Comey — who went toe-to-toe with President Donald J. Trump (Brendan Gleeson), who infamously fired Comey in May 2017.
Daniels (“The Newsroom”) brings his trademark decency and gravitas to the role. (He’s also 6’3″ to Comey’s 6’8″.) Ray, Oscar-nominated for the adapted screenplay for “Captain Phillips,” pursued Daniels because “he brings instant credibility,” he said in a phone interview. “You know the guy’s telling you the truth. With someone as polarizing as Comey, that’s an important hire. Jeff is someone America already trusted. I needed to have an actor so confident that he wouldn’t be thrown by the fact Trump is the bells and whistles fireworks part in this show, an actor who can trust his own stillness and quietude and know a lot of power in that.”
“The Comey Rule” breaks into two parts: Night One ends with the election of Trump, and Night Two starts with his taking office. “At the end of Night One we made the case there’s a shark in the water,” Ray said, “and as we go to break, our hero is in the water, ‘Now what’s going to happen?’ I thought a lot about ‘Jaws’ as we were making this: the decision to hold off on seeing the shark for as long as humanly possible, so that when you do, it really pops. You don’t see the shark until your hero does.”
Night Two pivots on the dramatic one-on-one White House dinner between the FBI Director and Trump, who are not supposed to talk privately. The FBI Director tries to navigate the perilous conversation as Trump asks him for a loyalty pledge. Daniels gives us a man who is as solid as Mount Rushmore: contained, unresponsive, and poker-faced as he stands up against new boss Trump, who comes on strong, with menace, threats, and bombast.
If Comey is the taciturn hero, a man of few words, Trump makes a powerful villain. Gleeson, who initially resisted accepting the role, does not play him as stupid. “You’d never call a mob boss an idiot,” Ray said. “Brendan is a brilliant actor with incredible physicality. Most important, he’s fearless.”
For Daniels, playing Comey was about recognizing that he is FBI to the core. “Comey is a great listener,” he told me on the phone from the Pittsburgh shoot of the nine-hour Showtime series “American Rust.” “You have to be. As an FBI attorney, he is sitting in interrogation rooms with mafia people. To put them away you have to get them to give you the information, get them talking. Once they start talking you listen. That’s it. That is the key. He’s a great listener and thought things through. You want to see: ‘What is Jim Comey thinking when he made these decisions?’ Because I react.”
To make that work, Daniels knew what he needed: “Good actors presenting to me,” he said, “throwing it at me in a way so Comey can receive it, like a verbal tennis match.” So Daniels told Ray: “Get me great actors around me.” Showtime came through with a $40 million budget for a four-hour limited series to support a loaded ensemble from Holly Hunter (Sally Yates), Michael Kelly (Andrew McCabe), and Jennifer Ehle (Patrice Comey) to Scoot McNairy (Rod Rosenstein) and Jonathan Banks (James Clapper).
As he sits down with the president, Comey doesn’t know what to expect. “He was thinking,” Daniels said. “When Trump starts talking and covering about eight subjects in one paragraph, it’s like nine fire hoses coming at you all at once. You grab one and respond to that. It’s a matter of trying to keep up. The scene of the loyalty dinner in particular, is a complete surprise to Comey. He never saw this coming. So now you’re just trying to keep your head above water in this torrent, this tsunami of words. Trump says, ‘I want your loyalty.’ He doesn’t take a knee and say, ‘You have my loyalty.’ That’s the conflict in the scene. When Comey’s answer is not that, it’s something else, then the dam bursts. It becomes important to let Brendan Gleeson give you that Trump, and then try to keep your head above water.”
But Daniels as Comey is keeping his expression blank. “He’s an FBI director,” Daniels said. “You don’t tip what you’re thinking, you don’t reveal what he’ll say or do. Where is it written that you have to show and tell?”
At one point Ray asked Daniels to show a bit more. “Billy, I’m thinking!” he said. “You already know the story. You may want to know the details. You know Trump asked for a loyalty oath that didn’t get answered, that Comey made notes and put them in a safe. You want to see what I’m doing? I’m getting out to the limo and putting down contemporary notes as quickly a possible. That’s when I’m showing what I’m thinking. At the time, I’m thinking, ‘How do I answer that? What do I say that doesn’t put me in compromising position and gets me out of this room?’ I have an internal monologue. There was stillness to it.”
To add further tension on the day they shot the scene: Comey was watching. The ex-FBI director got the shakes when he sat in a director’s chair on the set during the filming, he said on a video panel. “I was about to throw up on my shoes,” he said, “sitting in the dark as they recreated what I lived in a way I found very disturbing. I found it really difficult to relive…it hit me like a wave.”
He recalled how his mind raced as he asked himself, “‘How do I protect the FBI? What do I say?’ I was trying to maintain distance. ‘How do I do that now?’ Watching that scene, Jeff doesn’t say anything, but you can see the turmoil by looking at his eyes and the way he’s holding his jaw.”
“You’ve ruined my day,” he told Daniels. “You brought back the struggle, the awkwardness.”
“That’s my job in a nutshell,” Daniels said, “without saying a lot, to show you all that. If the guy I’m playing saw it, touchdown! I’m there.”
Ben Mark Holzberg / CBS Television Studios / Showtime.
In order to get inside Comey’s head —once the reluctant author’s wife talked him into participating; the former FBI Director’s first reaction to Ray and producer Shane Salerno adapting his 2018 memoir “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership” was “hell no,” he said — Daniels listened to Comey read his own audiobook. And they talked for hours.
“The sum of the process ended up being as if we had three months to sit down with [Comey] and listen to his side of the story,” Daniels said. “We heard the story on the phone or on the internet or in mainstream media in October 2016. I got to sit down with him in a real special way as a actor to understand what he did and why he felt it was the right thing to do. Unlike what we found on the internet, he wasn’t trying to make it about himself, or make some political dictum or be able to write a book to turn into limited series. He resisted it. He was going to do the right thing. He was making decisions that were apolitical. That’s something many didn’t see, when in October 2016 election, when [Comey] reopened the [Hillary Clinton private emails] case, people saw him as corrupt and self-serving. Not even three weeks later, in the days leading up to the election, he said, ‘No, these emails were nothing.’ That was too late. The initial Jim Comey reopening the investigation was different from the retraction headline that says, ‘We didn’t find anything.'”
From his Emmy-winning role as news anchor Will McAvoy on “Newsroom,” Daniels learned “how quickly news organizations and news directors run with something when they don’t have all the information,” he said. “That’s the trap we’re in now: ‘I saw it on my phone, it must be true.’ That’s where we were way back then. I came away thinking, this guy, there were consequences to what he did, certainly. But there were a lot of people, including the American public, who were misinformed by the press. He became the big villain. But Comey had valid reasons for doing what was right under the rule of law and hanging onto the integrity of the FBI.”