Daniels feels the turmoil in ‘Comey’
An actor doesn’t want to hear a performance made someone feel sick, but that was music to Jeff Daniels’ ears as he played controversial FBI Director James Comey in Showtime’s miniseries “The Comey Rule” (Sunday and Monday, 9 EDT/PDT).
During a break in shooting a pivotal one-on-one scene with Brendan Gleeson’s President Donald Trump – a notorious dinner where Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty – writer-director Billy Ray told Daniels there was a guest on set: Comey himself.
“Jim said, ‘You’ve brought back the uncomfortable, awkward emotions of knowing exactly what was going on and how wrong it was,’” Daniels says of the re-enacted White House encounter, detailed in Comey’s 2018 book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.” “He even said, ‘I feel nauseous.’ When you tell an actor their performance made you feel nauseous, it’s usually a negative, but not in this case. That told me we were doing it right.”
During his tenure, Comey left people on both sides of the aisle feeling ill after his actions in investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails and Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and its ties to Trump’s campaign.
The first part of the miniseries focuses on events leading up to the 2016 election; the second follows its aftermath, featuring once-anonymous officials who have become semi-household names, including Sally Yates (Holly Hunter), Andrew McCabe (Michael Kelly), Peter Strzok (Steven Pasquale), Lisa Page (Oona Chaplin) and Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy).
Jennifer Ehle plays Comey’s wife, Patrice, who worries about the consequences of her husband’s actions. William Sadler plays national security adviser Michael Flynn, with Kingsley Ben-Adir as President Barack Obama.
Daniels, 65, says the miniseries doesn’t take Comey’s side but reflects the thoughts in his book. Comey was fired by Trump a few months after the January 2017 “loyalty” dinner.
“It’s Comey’s point of view. We know Trump’s version of the story and that is that Comey is a liar. OK, here’s the other side,” he says.
Ray, who has examined real-life figures in films such as “Captain Phillips,” “Shattered Glass” and “Richard Jewell,” says he used Comey’s book as “a jumping-off point” and consulted with him during production, but did his own research and interviews.
He found nothing “that brought into question anything that was in Director Comey’s book, so it wound up being a pretty good template,” he says, adding that he doesn’t see the series as proComey or anti-Trump.
“The job of the (miniseries) was to tell the story of how heartbreaking it can be to be a public servant. Jim Comey’s a pretty dedicated public servant and seems like a great protagonist,” he says. “And Trump, in that respect, is a great counterweight because he is clearly not a public servant.”
Ray vigorously disagrees with the contention that Comey cost Clinton the presidency when he notified Congress 11 days before the election that
the FBI was reviewing emails related to the earlier server investigation.
“I know that not to be true,” he says. At one point, he had believed it, and told Comey when they first spoke. “But ... no less than (former Director of National Intelligence) James Clapper told me that the critical component in the 2016 elections was the Russians’ interference.”
Ray sees Comey’s integrity as his greatest strength and his “terrible political instincts” his biggest weakness. “He has a very strong moral rudder ... And I think there were times where he felt that moral rudder outweighed other political considerations.”
Daniels found Comey’s situation more complicated than he’d realized.
“In performing the role, I learned what he was up against when he made some of these controversial decisions. And it’s not as simple as I thought back in October 2016,” he says.
Although Gleeson has the Trump hair and 6-foot-3-inch Daniels wore two-inch lifts to approximate the 6foot-8-inch Comey – “I could act the other three inches” – the actors tried to get deeper into the characters.
“Brendan goes behind the eyes of Trump,” Daniels says. “Even though you know all the stuff that Trump says, (Brendan) pulls you in the way great film actors can do, so that you see maybe a private darkness behind the eyes of Trump. That’s what I saw.”
Although Showtime first scheduled the miniseries for December, Ray pushed for “Rule” to air before the Nov. 3 election. He says he’s not telling anyone how to vote, but “there are Americans who do not yet understand how profoundly Russia impacted our election in 2016. If people carry that information into the voting booth in 2020, that would be a really healthy thing.”
Daniels says “Rule” gives voters something to consider.
“We weren’t nearly as informed as we needed to be four years ago. I think we’re in a better place now. We’ve now had four years of Trump and what he’s going to do or not going to do,” he says. “We can make a smarter decision about what direction this country should go in.”
Jeff Daniels stands tall in “The Comey Rule.”