Jeff Daniels on ‘The Comey Rule’, Donald Trump, and learning what ‘apolitical’ meant


The star of ‘The Newsroom’ talks about essaying former FBI director James Comey, working with Brendan Gleeson and if his show could influence the upcoming US Presidential Elections

“Trump says Comey is a liar. The Comey Rule is the other side to the story. Now go vote!” smiles Jeff Daniels.

The US Presidential Election 2020 might be unfolding in a few weeks, but before that, it’s up to two of the most decorated actors of our times — Jeff Daniels and Brendan Gleeson — to take us back to the turbulent events surrounding the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath.

Starring the duo as former FBI Director James Comey and President Donald J. Trump respectively, The Comey Rule details the relationship between the two powerful men, and takes us on an insider’s journey down the corridors of power.

Based on Comey’s No. 1 New York Times bestselling book A Higher Loyalty, along with more than a year of additional interviews, the two-part series, directed by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray, delves into how the different personalities and loyalties put the two influential political figures on a controversial collision course.

Playing the titular character of Comey is Jeff Daniels, on the back of a spectacular decade of iconic roles: be it in shows like The Newsroom, Godless and The Looming Tower or movies such as Steve Jobs, to go with his earlier work in flicks like Dumb and Dumber, The Squid and The Whale, to mention a few.

Talking to from the US on a Zoom call ahead of the series’ international premiere, Jeff reminds one a lot of Will McAvoy, his now-memorable character from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, who has a penchant for zingers.

Going from Broadway to a film set — akin to running two marathons

“I did To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway (adapted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin) for a year before this; 8 shows a week, 415 shows straight. I went into The Comey Rule nine days after the last show; it was like finishing a marathon, and then someone hands you a glass of water and asks you to go run another one,” begins Jeff, adding, “Doing this project was risky; it was a challenge where it mattered and I could fail. You don’t walk away from things like that.”

Part one of the series examines the earliest days of the Russia investigation, the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and their impact on Election Night 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president. Part two is a day-by-day account of the tempestuous relationship between Comey and Trump and the intense and chaotic first months of the latter’s presidency.

“It’s all about power. One man takes on the President of The United States,” says Jeff Daniels
 

“The details are in the writing; Billy Ray who wrote and directed it set up the story so that global audiences can follow it too. But when you peel the stuff away, the tale essentially comes down to one emotion: power. It’s all about taking on power, which is an universal story. One man takes on the President of The United States,” explains Jeff.

Learning what it means to be apolitical through James Comey

Apart from reading James Comey’s book, how much work was put into getting into the character of someone so divisive in his public image?

“As far as the physical transformation goes, there never was any discussion on using prosthetics or cheekbones, etc. I used a hairpiece, looked taller and worked on the voice a bit. But importantly, we wanted to show viewers how he ‘thought’ his way through each and every situation and what he went through internally. Taking away the ornaments of an external kind of performance and letting the audience fill in the blanks is a gamble, but one which I believe has worked,” recalls the 65-year-old actor.

Jeff Daniles says that he really admired the former FBI Director’s ability to stay true to what he believed in

Jeff Daniles says that he really admired the former FBI Director’s ability to stay true to what he believed in
 

Elaborating further on James Comey, Jeff says that he really admired the former FBI Director’s ability to stay true to what he believed in: the rule of law, justice, truth and facts: “I admired the difficulty to hang on to those things apolitically in a politically divided country. I learned what it meant to be apolitical and neutral — and not to let the right or left influence your decision. He really was alone taking responsibility for all the decisions he made, fighting to defend the integrity of the FBI; that was his only comfort and safe space. That’s an ideal you find in the great heroes; they hang on to something bigger than themselves.”

Life until Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom,’ and beyond

Answering a question on where such a role ranks in his career, the actor says that he’s had two phases in his acting: “Everything leading up to The Newsroom, I took the best of what I was offered, and I had to work constantly to support my family. There was some good projects like Dumb and Dumber, which made an impact and are still popular. After Sorkin’s show, I suddenly got interested in acting again and to take on complicated roles — Godless, Looming Tower and so on — after 44 years in this field.”

“But still, not everything you do as an actor matters in the real world or impacts the audiences; The Comey Rule does. It’s a story that we still are living in. After I finished watching it, I went, ‘Oh my God!’ and realised that this is just the beginning,” Jeff says, thoughtfully.

On Brendan Gleeson’s portrayal of Donald Trump

Working with someone as accomplished as Jeff may not be easy for co-stars, especially after the star told his director to get him “great actors” for the show. That’s exactly what Jeff got with Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, Into The Storm) — a performer who could embodify Trump at his terrifying best (or worst).

Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump in ‘The Comey Rule’

Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump in ‘The Comey Rule’
 

“This wasn’t some SNL sketch. It’s always a pleasure to be with actors who are without BS, no drama, no ego, just work ethic. He was always ready on the first take despite having mountains of dialogue; we never had to rehearse or run lines. Just roll the camera. It’s something Clint Eastwood was famous for. Great actors work from the inside out,” Jeff explains, also noting Brendan’s prowess in portraying “the darkness inside Trump. “You could see it in his eyes. The hair, the make up, all that is secondary. But Brendan was able to characterise the beating heart within Trump… if such a thing does exist,” he smirks.

Finally, does he feel that The Comey Rule could influence people’s mindsets ahead of the elections?

“Influence? I don’t know. Inform? Yes. The Trump administration has taken constant attempts to quash information, so that the people don’t know what to believe. We are smarter now, and the series will inform people why James Comey did what he did four years ago — and remind them not to believe everything coming out of the White House,” Jeff concludes.

The Comey Rule will premiere on 27 September in India on Voot Select and Zee Cafe