Last winter, James Comey met Jeff Daniels for the first time. The experience made Comey sick to his stomach. “I remember the word ‘nauseous,’” Daniels recalled.
The two men — Comey, a former F.B.I. director, and Daniels, an Emmy-winning actor — met in Toronto on the set of “The Comey Rule,” a two-part series debuting Sunday on Showtime, based on Comey’s 2018 memoir, “A Higher Loyalty.” Daniels plays Comey.
Until then, the real Comey had made himself available by phone and email but stayed otherwise uninvolved. Eventually, though, he found time to spend a day on set. That day’s schedule, by chance, included a recreation of the now-infamous private dinner at which Comey has said that President Trump told him: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” (Trump has disputed this version of events.)
Watching Daniels squirm in a replica chair at a replica table in a replica of the White House Green Room opposite Brendan Gleeson’s Trump, Comey began to feel physically ill. That’s how he knew the scene was working.
“It was painful for him,” Daniels recalled during a three-way Zoom conversation with Comey earlier this month. Comey, whose only credit on the show is for writing the source material, put it more colorfully. “It freakin’ ruined my day,” he said cheerfully.
Written and directed by Billy Ray, a director and screenwriter who specializes in thrillers based on real events (“Shattered Glass,” “Breach”), “The Comey Rule” mixes legal procedural, political suspense and historical drama about a period of history so near and largely unprocessed that watching it can induce a kind of emotional whiplash. Which is to say that Comey may not be alone in feeling sick.
The first episode covers the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election and the F.B.I. investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The second follows the months just after, focused largely on the probe into Russian election meddling and culminating in Comey’s firing. Re-enactments and domestic scenes — Jennifer Ehle plays Comey’s wife, Patrice Failor — offer a sympathetic view of Comey as both public servant and private individual. They reiterate his self-criticism that he can be prideful, overconfident, led by personal ethics at the expense of useful institutional norms. But no scene contradicts or questions the version of events “A Higher Loyalty” supplies.
Ray acknowledged that he had approached the project with the belief that Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation had delivered the election to Trump — “Well, sir,” Ray recalled saying during the initial pitch meeting, “you got him elected.” But the Comey of Part 1 is ultimately a tragic hero, an upright man trapped in a no-win situation. The circumstances of Part 2? Even less winnable.
Still the real Comey had one word for his experience watching the series: “Exhausting.”
Side by side on Zoom — Comey from Virginia, Daniels from Michigan — Comey and the actor who plays him suggested a compare-and-contrast exercise. (Mostly contrast.) Daniels wore a Philadelphia folk festival T-shirt, his hair every which way, his face relaxing into a frown. Comey, perfectly kempt in a suit jacket and collared shirt, accessorized with a grin. His tidy background — closed blinds, a commendation or two — clashed with Daniels’s cluttered office.
On set, a hairpiece, makeup and the occasional voice coach had helped Daniels slip into Comey’s dress shoes. Then again, those shoes had lifts; Comey stands a looming 6-foot-8. “My family believes he captured me in a way,” Comey said. “It was sort of how he held his neck and shoulders.”
In conversation, both men projected decency, an Eagle Scout-ness of the soul. Daniels has likability, too, and his recent run of mostly trustworthy heroes — Will McAvoy in “The Newsroom,” Atticus Finch in Broadway’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” — supplies a meta-text that might help viewers invest in a story about a man who managed, in a few short months, to upset both sides of the aisle and probably most independents, too.
During an hourlong interview, Comey and Daniels discussed the shock of reliving the recent past, what a drama about the 2016 election can mean for viewers in 2020 and how much the mini-series made the real Comey cry. These are excerpts from the conversation.
Jim, I understand you were reluctant to sell the film and television rights. What convinced you?
JAMES COMEY Shane Salerno, one of the producers, turned me around. He said, “Tell us why you wrote this book.” I said, “Well, I wanted to be helpful, especially to young people, and try and offer a vision of these institutions and what leadership can be.” And he said, “If your book sells a million copies, it’ll be a huge nonfiction success. If a TV show has a million viewers, it’s canceled today.” He let that sink in and then he said: “Look, man, I know you’re uncomfortable. But if that’s your mission, get over your discomfort. Because kids aren’t going to read your book, but they will watch a show.”
What was your discomfort?
COMEY It was never one of my career goals to be a B-list celebrity. At first I wasn’t going to write a book. Then I wasn’t going to include the Trump chapters until my literary agents told me, “You’re crazy.” I just wanted the whole thing to go away. And the idea of a movie or TV show meant it was just going to be back in the public eye forever.
As it turns out, I’ve decided to stay in the public eye until the election, so it didn’t make that big a difference. But that was my discomfort. I just thought, “Oh, God, do I really need that?” And also, look, I’m sensitive to criticism, and one of the criticisms of me that I think is wrong but still hurts a little is this notion that I’m a showboat or that I want the attention. And I thought it would just feed that narrative.
Why did you trust Billy Ray to tell this story?
COMEY He asked me to watch “Shattered Glass,” to go back and watch “Breach” again. He said, “I’ve told difficult stories and I can tell them in a fair way.” And I was convinced he was right. Also, Patrice and I met him. Her verdict was, “Look, he’s a fair person.”
Jeff, what sold you on the role, especially coming off a year of eight shows a week on “To Kill a Mockingbird”?
JEFF DANIELS During “Mockingbird,” Billy came to me and said, “We want you to play Jim Comey.” My first thought was, “I don’t have a clue as to how to do that.” Which is a good thing. Because that’s what I thought with “Newsroom,” “Godless,” “Looming Tower,” Atticus Finch. So I said yes, knowing I’d have to do it nine days after I wrapped a year’s run in “Mockingbird,” which is like running a marathon and then somebody hands you a glass of water and says turn around and run another one.
Before you signed on to this project, had you thought much about Jim and what kind of a man he is?
DANIELS I honestly tried to go back and think to October 2016 in particular, when they reopened the case [the Clinton investigation]. Did I hit the roof and start throwing things? I don’t remember that. I think I was still recovering from “Grab ’em by the pussy.”
I understand that Billy also gave you Jim’s email. Did you use it?
DANIELS I think I emailed him once and basically said, “If you’re in New York in October, I’d love to sit down with you.” And we didn’t. And that was OK.
So you didn’t have any questions for him?
DANIELS It was in the book. I had the book!
Did you work on the voice, his carriage?
DANIELS I did as little with that as possible. YouTube is full of Jim. I can’t compete with YouTube, but if I can pull them in with a hairpiece and two-inch lifts, then I’ve done my job. It’s more about making the audience think what he’s thinking and feel what he’s feeling versus looking at a whole bunch of mannerisms and accents and things like that.
I love that at 6-foot-3 you were too short to play him.
DANIELS I had two-inch lifts, and he shows up and I’m still looking up. I needed Elton John platform shoes.
Jim, how did Jeff do, playing you?
COMEY I got to see the “loyalty dinner.” That was the only day I could get to Toronto. I’m watching this, and I’m feeling slightly ill. Jeff is capturing my discomfort in an amazing way. So when I met him, I said: “The best compliment I can pay you is you just ruined my day. I feel awful.” Yeah, the scene is eerily accurate.
It was your first time on a film set. What surprised you?
COMEY I was blown away by the ballet. They’re pushing cameras in, and there are people stepping over, and there’s a lady next to me who’s tracking the script to make sure that words aren’t dropped and there are voice coaches — just this huge group of people. They took me to wardrobe. And they had Patrice’s clothes — like the stuff she wears. Then they went to my daughter’s closets, and then they showed me my stuff, and it’s like these people have been stalking me and I had no idea.
What do you think this story is ultimately about?
DANIELS All I got is what Billy told me: the struggle to be an apolitical public servant in today’s America. And it’s like, America has no idea what that means, nor does it care.
COMEY There’s a danger of convincing myself of this, because I was so uncomfortable with the idea of a movie about me. But I think it’s about the institutions that are our foundation, and the people that make them — flawed people, people like me. One of the pitches that Billy made, he said: “I see this as a love story. It’s about the love between a man and an institution.”
It reminded me of a Greek tragedy, the story of a good man who just misses the mark.
COMEY Yeah, I think that’s right. I think it is a tragedy. There was no door that was going to avoid the disaster. Isn’t that the one of the essences of tragedy? That there is no way out for your hero?
DANIELS It’s a tragedy up to this point. But it hasn’t ended yet. Our institutions are at stake. Our country is at stake. Democracy is at stake. It’ll end on Nov. 3.
Jim, what was your experience watching the series?
COMEY Exhausting. I watched it with Patrice and two of my daughters. And it was emotional. Because when you’re in it, one of the ways you survive it is you don’t let yourself be overcome. So watching it with some of my girls, I realized just how much pain there was for me that I wasn’t fully acknowledging. But maybe what made it most emotional for me was watching their reaction. Because they felt so much pain at the time. And I didn’t fully appreciate that. It was a wash of emotion that I had been suppressing and then a wash of emotion laterally from them.
So out of the four of you, how many cried?
COMEY All four.
The mini-series will run five weeks before the presidential election. What are you hoping audiences will take away from it?
COMEY I thought it was important that this work be shown to the American people before the election. Because it’s about the nature and character of our institutions and the damage that the person who would like to be re-elected has done to them. I hope it makes a difference because it tells the truth.
DANIELS I think it’s the difference between being relevant and irrelevant. There was a time where it was going to be aired after the election, and that was not acceptable. Before the election we are relevant. We are part of the national conversation leading up to the most important election in this country’s history.
And yet politics are so partisan now. Will this really change anyone’s mind?
DANIELS On the way left, the way right, you’re not going to get them. Forget them. They’re gone. It’s that 20 percent in the middle. Some people say they don’t exist anymore. I think they do. I’m living around them here in Michigan. There are people out here, sometimes they vote Democrat, sometimes they vote Republican, often Republican out of habit. They’re thinking twice now. And those are the people that need to look seriously at this. I love doing things that matter, that count. And this thing matters. This thing counts.
Do you think enough time has elapsed for us to really understand what happened in 2016?
COMEY Maybe not fully. But the analog I look at is [the film] “All the President’s Men,” which came out in ’76. That wasn’t the end of the Watergate story. It was a contribution, an early contribution to the national understanding of what had happened. That’s how I see this. But I also think you’re right. I don’t think we have a complete understanding of 2016. I see this as a first draft of history.