Sunday’s premiere of the The Comey Rule, a two-part Showtime miniseries based in part on Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty, will take you right back to the drama around Hillary Clinton’s emails, Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Comey’s 2017 ousting as FBI director.
Director and screenwriter Billy Ray (who wrote Richard Jewell and wrote and directed Shattered Glass) isn’t worried that, in the midst of a pandemic and heated election battle, people might be over the whole Comey deal. “Comey, just the name itself, has a huge political charge to it, and to be honest with you, anything connected to the Trump presidency is a source of great fascination to all Americans,” he says. “I don’t get the sense that people out there right now are over it.”
Ray, who says he’s drawn to telling true stories, was itching to write and direct something about the Trump administration. When he received a copy of Comey’s book in 2018, he read it in one night and immediately decided to make it into a screenplay.
“He’s such a complex character, Comey. He’s flawed, which makes him really interesting,” says Ray. “I think he’s very misunderstood, which makes him a great opportunity from a storytelling point of view because you can exhibit things about him that people don’t know.” To write the screenplay, Ray conducted several interviews with Comey and showed him versions of the script to fact check (the former FBI director also sat in on filming one day).
As for casting, Jeff Daniels was always Ray’s first choice to play Comey. “He had such instant credibility,” says Ray. “[That’s important] if you’re going to be playing someone who has been accused by the President of being dishonest. It’s really important that Jeff’s kind of Midwestern sensibility be brought to the character.”
And while actor Brendan Gleeson was initially hesitant to take on the role of Trump (“Brendan, I think, had a very healthy respect for the amount of heat he would wind up taking [online] if he took on this part,” says Ray), the actor and Ray worked diligently on making sure that his portrayal of the President didn’t trickle into SNL-like farce. “We were not playing for comedy,” says Ray. “We wanted to play fair.” That meant making sure that Gleeson’s hair and makeup was more subtle than Trump’s actual oft-teased appearance, his suits fit better, and that his behavior was more restrained, says Ray.
Elsewhere in the series, Holly Hunter appears as Sally Yates, Michael Kelly as Andrew McCabe, and Scoot McNairy as Rod Rosenstein. And DC viewers may recognize local spots in the series, such as the Mall, the DAR National Headquarters, and the Andrew Mellon auditorium.
Ray understands that some people may be over capital-W Washington stories these days, leaning more toward Selling Sunset than Comey nonfiction. But he wants to remind viewers this is a story that hits close to home: “These are things that have affected our daily lives in very real and tangible ways,” he says. “It’s very difficult to look at this series and not be thinking, Oh, wow, history could have been very different if this conversation had gone a different way.”
Initially, Showtime wanted to premiere the series after the election, but Ray advocated for an earlier release. “Part of our story is what the Russians did to affect the 2016 election,” says Ray. “We wanted it to be released before the 2020 election as a warning about what can happen when a foreign adversary influences an American election.”
Meanwhile, Ray is steeling himself for potential Trump blowback post-premiere. “I’m expecting a mean nickname on Twitter,” he says. “I think there’s a real chance that I will suddenly be audited by the IRS.”
Not that he’s exactly shying away from confrontation. “My dream is to get to debate him about the merits of our miniseries,” he says. “I’d go on Fox News for that one.”
The first segment of The Comey Rule premieres on Showtime September 27 at 9 PM EST, and the second September 28 at 9 PM EST.