'The Comey Rule' Star Jeff Daniels and Writer-Director Billy Ray Look Ahead to a Post-Trump America: "The Real-Life Show Isn't Over Yet"

Billy Ray and Jeff Daniels
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic; Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Billy Ray, Jeff Daniels

Months after Showtime's two-part miniseries premiered in September, writer-director Billy Ray and star Jeff Daniels reunite to look back on their collaboration, reflect on the November election and suggest that Hollywood isn't done making projects about Trump.

Billy Ray has every intention of shamelessly plugging the actors who populated his Showtime series, The Comey Rule, at every opportunity that presents itself this awards season.

“I want my actors to get their due,” says the Oscar-nominated writer, who also directed the two-night event series about former FBI director James Comey – or more specifically the consequences of his decision to publicly reveal the Hillary Clinton email probe while staying mum about the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties.

As far as he’s concerned, there were plenty of great projects and even more great performances elsewhere but none required of its talent what The Comey Rule did. “No actor took the risk that Jeff Daniels [who played Comey] took or that Brendan Gleeson [who played Trump] took and then did incredible work on top of it,” says Ray of a project that ultimately scared off a slew of potential buyers. “And they deserve to wind up in tuxedos for what they did and I want to make sure that they do.”

So, on a late December morning, Ray, who was joined by Daniels, piped in virtually for a wide-ranging discussion about the project, the election and what comes next.

Billy, back in early 2018, you were approached to adapt former FBI director James Comey's memoir. What got you to say yes?

BILLY RAY I was so flattened by the 2016 election and had been looking for the right avenue to write something about Trump and his presidency and what I felt it had done to the country. And oddly I'd been feeling that the right way in was to write about Comey. Then [producer] Shane Salerno calls me out of the blue and says, "Hey, I've got [the rights to] Comey's book, do you want to do it?"

What sold you, Jeff?

JEFF DANIELS I was seven months into a yearlong run with To Kill a Mockingbird [on Broadway] — that's a long time with any character, and I had five months to go, so I was anxious to get something else after it. And I didn't know how to do it. I mean, James Comey, me? I was going to have to figure out how to play him, and at this age and stage in my career, that's what gets me in. I'm never looking for anything specific. I'm not all, "Oh, I hope to play Lear one day." I'm not that guy. But I turn down stuff where I know I'll have it before I get on the plane to go there. And with this, I also thought it was important. It isn't just a project. It would matter. Billy sold me on that.

What did you want to accomplish with this, and do you feel you did?

RAY To paraphrase the great American patriot, Nathan Hale, "I regret that I have but one miniseries to give to my country." That’s sort of how I felt about it. I’ve made a lot of movies about my country before, this is the first time I made a movie for my country. I have never had that kind of inspiration before. I have loved every story that I’ve told and I have told stories that I thought had insight but never have I had the opportunity before to make a story that I thought could affect a national conversation about who Trump was, who Trump is and what his relationship to our democracy is and has been. That is quite a privilege for a writer/director from the Valley. And I took it really seriously. And so did everybody on the show.

I mean, actors from Canada were telling me, “I’m here because I think it’s my civic duty to be here.” I know that’s how Michael Kelly felt about playing McCabe, I know that’s how Holly [Hunter] felt about playing Sally Yates. I know that’s how Brendan [Gleeson], an Irishman, felt about playing Trump. And it’s certainly what was driving Jeff. Do I think we changed anybody's votes? The evidence I have is anecdotal but consistent. Lots of people wrote to me and said, "I showed the miniseries to my father. He was a Trump fan, he's not anymore." That's meaningful to me. Again, I don't know what kind of impact we had, but if we changed anybody's mind or if we made a Trump voter stay home, that's a big, big win.

DANIELS Billy and I are consumed by all of this political stuff, but a lot of people aren't, certainly here in Michigan [where Daniels is from and has spent the pandemic], and I think The Comey Rule helped kick them in the head a little bit.

RAY As Jeff knows, I was in this [election] up to my eyeballs, helping candidates, speech-writing, debate prep, rapid response, phone banking, fundraising, whatever it would take. But I had access to a lot of information, and there was this incredible study done of pivot voters — voters who had voted for Obama and then flipped and voted for Trump: 6.1 million Americans fall into that category and, on average, they think about politics four minutes per week. That's inconceivable to people like Jeff and me. So, how are you going to reach those people? Having a really sick tweet is not going to work. But storytelling can. They see something on Showtime with a face they recognize, like Jeff Daniels', and they say, "Oh all right, I'll watch that. Jeff Daniels never let me down before."

DANIELS Well … (Laughs.)

RAY In the lead-up to the release, I was constantly saying things like, "I didn't make this movie as a Democrat, I made it as an American." And those were the right things to say before you air. But now that we have aired, I can tell the truth: Of course I was trying to change votes. My democracy was under assault and continues to be under assault from purely fascistic fantasists. So I was going to do what I could, and that's what this miniseries was.

It was the first Trump dramatization. What do you anticipate the appetite will be for more now that Trump will be out of office?

RAY I think we as a country are going to be unpacking the meaning of the last four years for generations to come. And I don't want to sound overly dramatic, but Germany is still making movies about the Holocaust because they are still trying to work that out. I'm not comparing Trump to the Holocaust; what I'm saying is for decades to come I think we're going to have to ask ourselves what did we allow to happen to our democracy and what does that say about America? I believe there will be lots more movies and plays and books — we're going to be telling the story over and over again until we can make some sense of it, and I hope to be part of that process. That said, are we going to see Trump as a character again in any of that? That I am less sure of.

DANIELS I think there'll be projects about the people around Trump. I also think that the real-life show isn't over yet.

RAY Right, Trump has still not conceded and there are lots of people out there with really big weapons who agree with him. So, it may be that the most dramatic part of this story is yet to be told.

Are there other pieces of what has happened that you'd like to dramatize in the future?

RAY Yes, there's another thing that the Trump administration did that I find particularly heinous that I think we're going to be talking about as a country for a long time to come, and that's the next target. And all I can say is, "Jeff, sit by your phone. We're going to be calling you."

DANIELS Not Comey again?

RAY No, it's not Comey. (Laughs.) I'd said to Brendan Gleeson [who plays the president in The Comey Rule], "Hey, if we ever do Trump and Fauci, would you want to play Trump again?" And he wrote back, "I'd rather play the virus."

This project terrified a lot of potential buyers. Do you think they had reason to be afraid?

RAY I don't. When we were pitching this, it was 2018 and you could make the argument that Trump was going to be reelected and that it was going to be dangerous to any company to stand up to him. He doesn't exactly take criticism with a lot of grace. But as you look back now, is there some giant price that Viacom paid for telling this story? I haven't seen it. And we pulled a gigantic number — the biggest debut of a limited series [at the time] for Showtime.

You’ve been candid about how challenging it was to get someone to play Trump because of the potential fallout. Has Brendon suffered? 

RAY I don’t think so. He certainly hasn’t told me that he has. It’s not insignificant that the only press he did, he did after the election. He was definitely in protection mode. And I just want to tip my cap here to Jeff because Jeff hung in there when we were looking for our Trump and when there were actors who were talking about doing Trump and then chickening out and actors who were passing without reading because they were so afraid of playing Trump. And there were a couple actors who I had met with that I would have made it with and I would call Jeff and he would say, “No, I’m not doing it with that guy. Nope, not doing it with that guy, that guy is not good enough. Nope, that guy doesn’t scare me. Nope, I don’t hear great things about that guy, nope.” And the truth is I am in Jeff’s debt because of that. Had he just been agreeable on that level we would’ve settled for someone who wasn’t as good as Brendan and Brendan is spectacular. 

What do you remember from that process, Jeff?

DANIELS Most of what Billy just said is true. (Laughs) Casting was a big deal. And as Billy will tell you, when he sat in the dressing room of Mockingbird, the first question I had for him was, "Is Showtime gonna pay for good actors around me?" Because half my performance is in the other actor.

RAY I promised Jeff on that night in his dressing room I’m going to get you race horses that are also work horses. And if you look at every actor in this show, that’s what they are.

DANIELS I read the scripts and it was like [Aaron] Sorkin again -- a lot of dialogue for a lot of people and we need people who were gonna come in, off-book, ready to go, take one. So it was, "Just get me those people." And across the board on Comey Rule, he did and they were ready to go on take one. And then, we wouldn’t rehearse. So, now we’re doing Clint Eastwood. I remember we did it in the loyalty dinner scene but also there was a big FBI meeting where we had eight people around us and it’s five pages of FBI technical this, FBI technical that -- I mean, it’s just jargon, and they said, “Jeff, do you want to rehearse?” And I said, “No, let’s go.” And I could see we had some Canadian actors around going, “Oh jeez, hang on.” And I was doing the same thing ‘cause I had a mountain of it. But that’s fun, that’s jumping off the cliff and trying to flap your arms and fly. 

Jeff, the most pivotal scene in the series is that loyalty dinner between Comey and Trump, which the real Comey was on set to see. What was going through your head?

DANIELS I hadn't met with Jim before shooting. I did reach out over email and go, "Hey, if you're in New York …," but it didn't happen. I had enough with YouTube and the book though. And Billy is a very positive director. He'd send emails going, "Great work today," and it makes you feel good. Then I get one about two months into shooting that says, "By the way, Jim Comey is going to be up in Toronto. Would it be all right if he were there for Tuesday?" And I say, "Yeah, I'm sure Tuesday is fine, why not?" I'd been gone two months, I kind of had him. And even if he doesn't like it, what are we going to do? Then I go, "What are we shooting Tuesday?" And he said, "The loyalty dinner." Oh boy.

RAY Well, I'm not going to have him come out to watch you get in and out of a car. (Laughs.)

DANIELS But [Comey] was the least of my problems. I was meeting Brendan Gleeson in the makeup trailer that morning. And we didn't run lines — he talked to me about the fiddle and Ireland and this and that — and then Billy says, "Let's just shoot it." It was thrilling, and we did it a few times. Then Comey walks around the corner, and he'd seen us, and he says, "You made me nauseous." That's usually not a compliment, but I took it as one on that day.

How were you feeling, Billy?

RAY Of course you’re gonna be nervous — you’re telling this story and the one person who could say to you, “No, no, no that’s bullshit, that’s not at all how it felt,” is literally sitting over my left shoulder with his daughter. So yeah, that’s a slightly higher degree of difficulty. And we’re shooting eight and a half pages in a day and it’s the most important scene in the show by a mile and Jeff and Brendan have never met until that morning. And we’re doing this very complicated lighting gag because from the moment Trump says, “I need loyalty,” I wanted to start killing the lights behind them. There’s a five and a half minute dim so that by the end of the scene there is just the overhead lights so that they feel like they’re on this island in a bunch of dark water. So that had to go well, too. And what can you do? You’re the director and you prepare your cast and your crew, you tell them what it is that you want, and then they have to do it.  

And they did? 

RAY They did, and spectacularly. In fact, the second we were done shooting [the loyalty dinner scene] I asked my editor, Jeff Ford, to give me a cut of that scene as fast as you can. And within a day or so, we had a cut of the scene that I was in love with and we started showing it to members of the cast and the crew and the head of CBS All Access [Julie McNamara]. Forty days into a 51 day shoot, I’d call someone into the edit bay and say, “Watch this, that’s what we’re doing.” And people came out of there, just breathing fire, they couldn’t wait to go to work the next day and make more. So, the loyalty dinner paid enormous dividends immediately for us.

How did the process of making this series impact the way that you experienced the most recent election?

RAY I remember going into the 2016 election and I hated Trump but I didn’t do much about it. I sent Hillary some money but it’s not like I tripped over myself to prevent the freight train from hitting us because I didn’t think it would. And I woke up the morning after that election and said, “Never again can I wake up the morning after an election thinking I could have done more.” So, leading up to this election I knew I had done everything I could. Aside from all the political activism, I went out and made this and I didn’t know anyone else who had done that. And if that wasn’t enough, well, fuck it, I’m gonna move to Vancouver.  

How about for you, Jeff?

DANIELS I knew we were going to do a lot of promotion for Comey Rule before the election, and there certainly is an argument to be made, and some actors made it, which is, shut up and [act], stay out of politics. And the reason is simple: In a divided country like this one, you risk losing half an audience. OK, well, I've been around long enough, I've had a good career, I'm willing to risk it. If you don't watch what I'm going to do next, I'm good, I had a good run. This is too damn important. I've got kids and grandkids and we didn't know what was going to happen on Nov. 3, and I wanted them to know that I was on the right side of history.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a January standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.