But a week after the network’s airdate announcement — and after screenwriter-director Billy Ray made his disappointment known and even the real-life Comey expressed confusion — the network reversed course and said the series would debut Sept. 27. Ray, who had written a passionate letter to “The Comey Rule” team saying how upset he was by the original decision, was relieved. He told The Washington Post that he believes executives at the network and its parent company, ViacomCBS, eventually realized delaying the show until late November would be “a terrible idea.”
(When asked about the scheduling, a Showtime representative said, “We were already in discussions about moving the date prior to the letter. Due to covid, our fall schedule shifted. So when we realized we had to move some of our tentpole programming, it made sense to move up the date.”)
Either way, Daniels was back in to promote the two-night, four-hour, behind-the-scenes look into the events surrounding the 2016 presidential election from Comey’s perspective. Based on Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty,” it dives into his hugely controversial decision to reopen an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and into the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the election, and it takes a look at the chaos in the early days of President Trump’s White House.
Daniels, who has said that if Trump wins another term it will be “the end of democracy,” hopes the series is educational for viewers. “We were in a different time, when Trump was just a celebrity that was going to cut people’s taxes and ‘It’ll be okay because there will be 10 people around him who won’t let him do something stupid, crazy or dangerous.’ Well, those 10 people are gone now,” Daniels said. “We need to be a hell of a lot more informed than we were then. Maybe this will help.”
While Comey served as a resource for Ray, Daniels interacted with him only briefly. Comey visited the set on the day that Daniels and Brendan Gleeson (taking on the first dramatic portrayal of Trump) filmed the “loyalty dinner,” the infamous incident in which Trump invited the FBI director to the White House in January 2017 and, according to Comey, told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
After watching the scene, Comey confirmed to Ray that was exactly how it played out in real life. Then he went up to Daniels and told him, “I feel a little nauseous.”
“Usually when you say that to an actor after their performance it’s a bad thing,” Daniels said. “But I took it as a compliment.”
Ray, the screenwriter of such films as "The Hunger Games," "Captain Phillips" and "Richard Jewell," had very strong feelings about Comey during the 2016 election.
“I hated him,” Ray said. “And I didn’t understand what he was doing.”
Ray’s opinion started to change when he saw Comey’s unflappable reaction to Trump’s treatment — and ultimate firing — of him. Then, Ray read “A Higher Loyalty” after a producer approached him about adapting the screenplay.
“It gave me a greater understanding of him,” Ray said. “Then I got to know him, and I saw who the guy actually was. I felt he had enormous integrity and great humility.”
Make no mistake, Ray said: The goal is not to idealize Comey. He takes issue with criticism that the series is too fawning and believes it paints a very accurate picture of Comey’s strengths and weaknesses. Even though Comey knew Ray would be critical, he still picked him to adapt his book.
“I was really moved by the fact that he never tried to manipulate me in any way,” Ray said. “He knew how I felt about things he had done.”
The series repeatedly zeros in on Comey’s well-known determination to remain apolitical, starting in July 2015 when the inspector general of the intelligence agencies refers a case to the FBI to investigate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. The tone is set when one of Comey’s deputies bluntly tells him, “You know you’re screwed, right? I do not see a positive outcome here no matter what we find.”
Comey calmly responds, “Just do it right.”
Those words foreshadow the events everyone knows are coming: The FBI declining to recommend charges against Clinton in July 2016. The discovery of more emails two months later on disgraced politician Anthony Weiner’s laptop. And finally, the delivery of “the Comey Letter” in late October that informed Congress the FBI was reopening the investigation, which ultimately found nothing incriminating and Clinton blamed as a major factor that cost her the election.
But in the series, even as some FBI staffers and his own wife and daughters are aghast at his choices, Comey is ruled by his guiding factor: “If I ever start considering whose political fortunes might be affected by a decision, even for a second, we’re done,” he says.
Daniels said people furious with Comey may reconsider certain judgments when they see on-screen how he was “constantly between a rock and a hard place” as he was dropped into the “political tsunami” that was October 2016.
“I didn’t know it in 2016, and I don’t think America had much idea of what ‘apolitical’ meant,” Daniels said. “But he was an example of someone trying to hang on to being apolitical and serving something bigger than himself, which was institutions.”
“That’s what I learned in doing this,” he added. “The struggle and the difficulty in these politically divided times to remain apolitical and not get the s--- beat out of you.”
Though Daniels and Gleeson will get most of the attention for playing Comey and Trump, the cast is packed with actors portraying political figures, including Holly Hunter as acting attorney general Sally Yates, Michael Kelly as FBI Director Andrew McCabe and Jonathan Banks as National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper Jr.
British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir landed the role of President Barack Obama, and he said the first scene he filmed with Daniels — in which Comey interviews with Obama in 2013 for the FBI director job — was the most nervous he’s ever been in his career. Plus, there was the added pressure of playing one of the most famous people on the planet.
“You can play Barack Obama’s voice anywhere in the world, and people are going to know who it is in a very short amount of time,” said Ben-Adir, who spent six weeks perfecting Obama’s dialect. “So it’s like, how do you tap into the sound and just get enough of the essence so people know who it is without doing a caricature? It was a bit like a puzzle.”
Daniels said that was one challenge with the project: It wasn’t straight-up impersonations. “We tried to play what these people are thinking and feeling, with just enough to suggest who they are in real life.”
Gleeson worked with a vocal coach for his transformation into Trump, which is startlingly accurate. The president is the driving force of the second half of the series, as he grows increasingly angry about the FBI’s investigation into his possible ties to Russia (and that dossier). Comey is, of course, eventually fired and learns about said firing during a trip to the Los Angeles FBI field office, on TV, in front of a group of FBI agents.
Ray said that part wasn’t difficult to write because, incredibly, that’s what happened in real life. “There was no reason to pump the drama into that. Donald Trump had written that scene for me,” he said.
Still, other elements of “The Comey Rule” — which filmed in Toronto and Washington — were surreal as Ray thought about the mayhem of American politics over the past four years. When he bid farewell to his Canadian crew on the last day of filming, he warned them, “Don’t go to sleep on your democracy. Don’t take it for granted. ’Cause you can lose it. And we’re losing it, in my country, and it’s a really sad and scary thing.”
Trying to impart that warning overall, he said, is critical: “That was a reason to make this series.”