The two-part Showtime series The Comey Rule, from writer/director Billy Ray and based on the book by James Comey, is a behind-the-scenes account of the events surrounding the 2016 presidential election and the role it played in helping to divide the nation. Following James Comey (Jeff Daniels) and President Donald Trump (Brendan Gleeson), and how their interactions entwined with each other before Comey’s dismissal from the bureau in May 2017, The Comey Rule examines two men with blatantly contrasting personalities, codes of ethics, and loyalties.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Michael Kelly talked about playing former FBI Director Andrew McCabe, being a political junkie, living in a world where we’re questioning what’s real and what’s not, getting to spend some time with McCabe, Brendan Gleeson’s performance as Donald Trump, working alongside Jeff Daniels, how he’d feel about a Trump reaction tweet, and much more.
Collider: When this all came your way, what was your reaction to this project?
MICHAEL KELLY: [Miniseries creator] Billy Ray tweeted about it, saying that he was gonna do this, and I responded to that tweet with, “Who am I playing?” I’m a political junkie and studied political science in college. I love it. I know more about it than I do about my business. So, I was thrilled. I was kidding with him but at the same time, I was so grateful when the offer actually did come through. He said, “Hey, man, you’re gonna be getting an offer,” but I didn’t know who it would be for. And when I found out and then I got to read the script, I was just like, “Oh, my goodness.” I was surrounded by all of these incredible actors. I just felt nothing but gratitude.
When you hear about anything that has to do with these last few years and this administration, it feels like it’s going to be a spoof of some sort but this is actually a serious drama. When you read the script, what most stood out to you about it? What most surprised you about it?
KELLY: Not much surprised me because I’m very up on everything happening politically and was very involved, reading about this as it all happened, leading up to the election, through the election, and to the current day. I’m somewhat obsessed with it all, like unfortunately a lot of us have become, because it matters so much. For me, even though knowing it, in retrospect now, what really blew me away was how much the FBI knew about the Russian collusion bit of it, at the time, prior to the election. Look, I’m not going so far as to say that he was welcoming this help from Russia or not because it doesn’t matter. It’s not a hoax. It’s very well done, how it’s explained in the story, and it’s riveting drama. It’s stuff you typically only see in movies but this happened and it’s crazy.
It’s so bizarre to feel like we live in this strange parallel universe where I wonder, on a daily basis, if I somehow either took the wrong pill or everybody else took the wrong pill because I don’t understand how everybody can just not see the reality around them.
KELLY: And you just said it perfectly. The first thing a dictator does is discredit the media, and he did that. He successfully discredited the media to over half of political supporters, on that side. His people are like, “Well, I no longer believe that.” They no longer believe the news. That’s a problem. That’s a real problem that we are facing right now. There’s incredible journalism happening right now and it’s shameful how the American people, as a whole – and I’m not saying everyone, I’m just saying as a whole – are questioning certain news outlets, and questioning what’s real and what’s not. It’s because this man is saying on a daily basis, “Don’t believe it.” So, people are asking, “What do I believe?”
This is a real problem that we’re facing right now. It’s very real. It’s crazy. This is unprecedented and crazy. You see people protesting masks now. Really, is it that much of an inconvenience to put on a mask? But that’s being fueled by someone. We have to be very careful. And so, the importance of this project could not be greater. Because we are inundated with this crazy, every day, it’s important to go back and see where it all started, to see what happened in the very beginning, to see what was actually happening, and to get that look into these rooms that you didn’t get to see into but really heard about. And this isn’t a one-sided thing. This isn’t just an anti-Trump project at all. This is gonna piss off people on the left and the right. But more than ever, my hope is that it’s gonna get people talking on the left and the right. I try to engage with people all the time and it’s never more important than now.
Does it feel different when you’re playing a character who’s not only a real guy but a guy that’s still very much alive?
KELLY: Yeah, of course. As an actor, the challenge is so much greater because you have someone to answer to, to a certain extent, and you wanna remain as true to that character as you can, all while still serving the story and the script. I read Andrew McCabe’s book. I did not read Comey’s book. I did not want to be influenced by Comey’s book. I had the script and I had the story. I followed it, so I pretty much knew the story about James Comey but I wanted to know about Andrew McCabe. I wanted to know what made him tick and what made him make the decisions that he made at the time. I was able to first email with him, then text with him, and eventually, I got to sit down with him for a couple of hours, and I was so grateful for that. The director didn’t want me to do Andrew McCabe. He wanted me to get the essence of Andrew McCabe. I was very fortunate that he was kind enough to give me time to sit down and chat with him and have a real conversation with him.
It definitely seems like you have a little bit more leeway with someone like Andrew McCabe, where you don’t have the same pressure as the actors playing Donald Trump or Barack Obama.
KELLY: Of course. And also, you have someone like Barack Obama who speaks in a very specific way. He’s very gregarious. I’ve met him. And then, you have Trump who speaks the way that he speaks. They’re so specific. Andrew McCabe doesn’t have a very specific way of speaking, so capturing his essence was better than trying to do him, if that makes sense.
What was it like to see Brendan Gleeson in character as Donald Trump and to see how he chose to embody him?
KELLY: I never got to personally see it myself on set. We never worked even within days of each other. But to see the finished product and to see what he did, as an actor, all I can say is, “Wow, thanks for the master class.” I felt that he perfectly thread the needle of being that character instead of doing that character, and that’s a very hard thing to do, especially with someone like Donald Trump. Credit to Billy Ray and the hair and make-up department, who chose to pull back on the level of orange on his face and chose to make his hair a little bit less crazy than his hair really is. I commend them for that because it’s easy to go the other way. It’s hard to go the way that they chose. Brendan just knocked it out of the park. I was blown away by what he did.
What was your dynamic like with Jeff Daniels? What was it like to work and share scenes with him and to explore that dynamic?
KELLY: I feel like, as an actor, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career to work with literally some of the best actors alive, and I can now put Jeff Daniels on that list. Watching him work and watching him play James Comey, he carried himself like him. He put lifts in his shoes to make himself taller. He’s six foot five and Comey is six foot eight. Jeff Daniels and the whole team at the FBI would all hang out in this one big room where we did the majority of the investigating. When we weren’t filming in there, that’s where we hung out. Jeff Daniels would be picking away at his guitar. He’s just a beautiful guitar player. Oona Chaplin was teaching me how to knit. We were all having conversations about politics, family, and everything. Everyone took this seriously. You’d see everyone just go be these people because we all wanted to serve this story the best we could. Everyone had a great passion for this, as we were making it. You saw it, it was so tangible in the room.
Are you interested at all in hearing how Donald Trump reacts to this, or do you not at all care how he reacts to this?
KELLY: I care and I don’t care. I don’t really care about a lot of what he does because it’s all just a lot of hot air. But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to see him tweet, “Michael Kelly is the worst Andrew McCabe ever. A fake guy playing a fake guy.” Are you kidding me? I’d be in heaven.
Did telling this story, playing this character, and digging deeper into all of this change your opinion about any of these events or about any of the players who were involved, or did it just solidify what you feel you already knew about it?
KELLY: I feel like it really solidified what I knew, and certainly what I knew prior to the start of filming. I know quite a bit about politics and I knew quite a bit about what happened but even then, I will admit to learning new stuff, reading the scripts, reading McCabe’s book, and everything. There’s just a wealth of information that’s come my way, politically, since. Even after knowing a good amount, I welcomed it. The scary thing for me is that we know it’s happening again. We know for a fact that Russia interfered in our election in ‘16. I don’t have to go so far as to say whether he welcomed it or not. It doesn’t matter. They interfered in our election with the sole purpose of getting Donald Trump elected. We know this. And the real problem is that we know it again. It’s happening again. We know that. All of the intelligence agencies are saying it, and we know it. Hopefully, this serves as a reminder to people of what happened and it puts in their heads that it’s probably happening again. And I hope it gets people to talk and have conversations. We’re not real fond of one another right now. It’s never been more divided and it breaks my heart. I’m from the South. I know plenty of people around that side of the aisle. The majority of them, I have conversations with and we can talk about things that we do agree on. There’s not a lot, these days.
What do you feel Billy Ray brought to this project, as the creator and director?
KELLY: You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knows more about politics, currently, then Billy Ray. He is as informed as senators and people who are actually in it. It’s a passion of his, like it is mine, and he just happens to be a lot smarter than me. Also, what Billy Ray brings to any project. What he brings is a dedication to work and to the project that you very rarely see. He lives that project while he’s doing it. He eats the same thing for lunch every single day so that he doesn’t have to take time away from his project and think about what he’s going to have for lunch. He’s also the director who, at the end of the day, and I’m not exaggerating, thanks every single crew member around by name, before walking out the door. And if they’re not there, he’ll go and find some of them to say, “Thank you,” and call them by their name. He’s just an exemplary director. He’s so good at what he does and he’s also very efficient. We finished early, a lot of days, and we shaved off three or four days to get this ready to come out before the election. I could go on and on about him but those are some of the good qualities that he brought.
When you do something like this, so soon after it all actually happened, were there any moments on set that ever felt really surreal?
KELLY: I don’t think there was a day that went by that didn’t feel surreal. I’m not exaggerating or being funny. Every day you’re on set, you’re like, “Jesus, God, this is insane!” It really hits you like that, when you’re on set. If you look at the long course of history in American politics, we were doing it while it was happening.
How did playing someone involved in real-life politics compared to the fictional politics of House of Cards?
KELLY: On one hand, it’s night and day. As an actor, you have certain freedoms playing a fictional character that you don’t have playing a real-life person. The two differ, in that way. As an actor, I don’t judge my characters. It’s my duty to try to understand them and the decisions that they make, but there was certainly a weight to this that there wasn’t with Doug Stamper because this person is alive and this is what’s tearing our country apart. Getting this right was so important to me. Playing this character as faithfully and honestly as I could was so important.
In retrospect, how do you feel about House of Cards, overall? What, what was the experience like for you, in the long run?
KELLY: It’s the greatest gift I’ve ever been given, as an actor to that point in my life. It afforded me things in life, and I don’t just mean monetarily but career-wise. After it aired, every single season, I was offered a really cool job to do in the off-season because of that job. I will forever be indebted to Beau Willimon and all those people. Yes, it was tainted at the end but at the same time, I look back on that, that crew, and those people as one of the best experiences of my life, and I’ll forever be grateful to that. Doug Stamper was the greatest gift you can be given, as an actor. He was a nut.
What are you looking to do next? How do you approach finding projects, these days?
KELLY: With my manager and agents, whether it be a writer I really wanna work with, a director I really wanna work with, or another actor I really wanna work with, it’s one of those things that just jumps out at you. You’re like, “Oh, my God, I have to do this.” You read about it and it happens, or you hear about it and it happens. I don’t mean it happens, and then I get the job. It becomes something you have to do if you can. There’s some element about it that draws you to it, where you just feel compelled to do it. And as far as what I wanna do next, this sounds cheesy but I’ll know when it hits me. I wouldn’t mind playing someone closer to myself – someone who never stops smiling and who’s a good guy. I never get to play the good guy. Andrew McCabe is a good guy, in my opinion, but he’s also very serious. I wouldn’t mind smiling and showing my teeth in a movie, for once.
The Comey Rule Part 2 will air Monday, September 28 at 9/8c.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.