When Brendan Gleeson makes his grand entrance as Donald Trump approximately an hour into Sky Atlantic’s upcoming political thriller, The Comey Rule, it’s like the scene at the end of Apocalypse Now in which Colonel Kurtz finally enters the frame. Or when the shark arrives in Jaws.
Everything until this moment has just been build up. And now he’s here, Gleeson-as-Trump is terrifying. The eyes are cold pin-pricks. The orange hair juts aggressively. A weird, malevolent glow emanates from his skin. Whatever you think of the real life Trump, Gleeson’s take on the American President is a masterclass in uncanniness. It’s one of the actor’s most unnerving turns.
“As much as we love Alec Baldwin [who impersonates Trump on Saturday Night Live] we don’t want to do the caricature version of Trump,” says Comey Rule director Billy Ray (writer of Richard Jewell, Terminator: Dark Fate and Gemini Man).
“I had a lot of conversations with Brendan Gleeson who is, of course, a brilliant actor and who was taking a huge risk in playing this part.”
Gleeson, as Ray says, was determined not to deliver a pastiche of Trump. Nor to portray the Commander-in-Chief as the buffoon we see on left-leaning American television shows such as The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight.
The Dubliner’s great insight was that you don’t become the most powerful person on earth by being an idiot. And so his Trump is entirely serious. Incredibly chilling, too “We were [doing] less cartoonish make-up than he [Trump] actually wears,” says Ray.
“We were going to do the less cartoony version of his hair. That had to do with how Brendan played the voice and the mannerisms. Good luck doing it with someone who’s not a great actor. We did have a great actor, who allowed us to [portray] Trump as a human being with needs and drives and flaws.”
The Comey Rule, which will debut on Sky Atlantic on September 30, is essentially long-form journalism dramatised for the screen. It is adapted from A Higher Loyalty, the 2018 memoir by former FBI director James Comey, played by Jeff Daniels.
Comey is a figure of considerable controversy in the US. As head of the FBI, he became caught in the maelstrom of American politics in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election. This happened when he publicly revealed that, having received new information, the FBI was reopening the investigation into Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State.
The FBI director believed he was doing the right thing. But in going public as he did, he was perceived as giving a huge boost to Trump. Here was one of those notorious “October surprises” that may well have swayed the result. As we all know, the former reality star duly gained the White House. Not long afterwards, in May 2017, he fired Comey. So much for following your conscience.
The Hillary inquiry – the FBI ultimately concluded there were no grounds for prosecution – and Comey’s relationship with Trump are exhaustively chronicled in the Comey Rule. As is the FBI investigation into claims that Russia, using social media, interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Trump. The ominous takeaway is that democracy is vulnerable to manipulation and that we must be all on our guard against attempts to hack and subvert our institutions.
Daniels plays Comey as a straight arrow – high-minded in that self-important American way yet naive regarding the dog-eat-dog reality of Washington. The actor reveals that he was coming off a stint on the stage and looking to take some time for himself. But when he read the script to the Comey Rule he knew he had to say yes.
“I did To Kill a Mocking Bird on Broadway for year,” he says. “I fulfilled that contract. My last show was Sunday afternoon November 3. I did eight shows a week – 415 straight shows. I needed to be horizontal for two months. To go into Comey nine days after doing the last bow on Broadway – it was like running a marathon and someone hands you a glass of water and said, ‘go run another one’.”
Daniels says that he would have passed on almost any other production. But this was too significant.
“The Comey Rule was a project that mattered, that counted, but that was risky and where I could fail. You don’t walk away from things like that.”
Comey was initially reluctant to sign off on an adaptation of his book, Ray reveals. “He had a lot of hesitation,” says the director. “That largely came from his family. They all felt quite rightly that they were going to be inviting a whole new level of scrutiny. And who needs it? They have kids. Why would they want this?”
Ray talked him around by explaining that the message of Comey’s book – that institutions and the rule of law matter – would be amplified on TV. “A book could reach this many people. A successful television show could reach exponentially more. The goal was to get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible.”
Comey as portrayed by Daniels is a bit of a stuffed shirt. However, the actor saw a nobility in the FBI chief’s determination to do the right thing. Even when people around him told him bluntly that doing the right thing would deliver the election to Trump.
“He clung to what he believed in: he clung to the rule of law, justice, truth, the institution of the FBI. And to defending the integrity of that institution. That was his only comfort. His only safe place to go.
The Comey Rule airs as the 2020 American election reaches its crucial final months. Daniels is proud to have participated in a drama that forensically lays out the extent of Russian interference in 2016.
“Not everything you get to do as an actor counts or may have some kind of effect on the audience in a way that may change them,” he says. “This had all of that. It was relevant – not only then but today. It’s not often that you tell a story that we’re still living through.”
“The story is happening right now,” agrees Ray. “It couldn’t be more timely. We all saw what the Russians did to infiltrate the American election in 2016. We all felt it was important to tell this story. For Americans to see it before the 2020 election.’