Billy Ray doesn’t think his two-part miniseries The Comey Rule is anti-Trump. “I really don’t. I think it’s a very fair piece and I think it depicts Donald Trump as he is and has him saying things that he actually said,” he told Collider during a recent Zoom chat. “I mean, in that respect, I think that we’re a window and not an eye.”
This doesn’t mean that the writer/director whose credits include Shattered Glass, Captain Phillips, and Richard Jewell doesn’t have an opinion about the 45th President — which he sees as a good thing. “He’s such a polarizing figure I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a writer/director who doesn’t have a point of view about Donald Trump. And if you did [find that writer/director], I’d be bored by their movie,” he said. “You want people to bring a certain point of view to storytelling like this, and as long as you’re being truthful and as long as you’re being fair, I think you’re within the bounds. The bigger thing for me was making sure that we were entertaining, making sure that we were compelling and emotional and harrowing and powerful and relevant. I think we checked all those boxes.”
The Comey Rule, directly based on the autobiography A Higher Loyalty by James Comey, focuses on the former FBI director’s involvement with the 2016 presidential election (including “her emails”), followed by his relationship with the newly inaugurated president. The casting is packed with great talent, from Emmy-winning Jeff Daniels as Comey and Brendan Gleeson delivering an interpretation of Trump that’s light years away from satire.
A lot of the conversation below is focused on the casting, as there are some pretty unexpected choices when it comes to the real-life figures portrayed in the Showtime miniseries. But beyond saying who he’d cast to play Dr. Fauci in a theoretical Night 3, Ray also reveals how he felt about the original post-election premiere date and why one of his first screen credits is co-creating the short-lived NBC sci-fi drama Earth 2.
COLLIDER: So there are some really interesting and unconventional choices in the casting: For example, Kingsley Ben-Adir’s great as Barack Obama, even though he’s significantly younger than Obama was at that period of time. Was that at all a concern for you?
BILLY RAY: He’s younger, but he’s such a great actor and he’s so dedicated and he got the voice so right, and got the mannerisms right, got the pauses right. I think people will forgive us for that one. That was a particularly critical part because the first really juicy scene in the series is the Obama interview of Comey. If we had someone who wasn’t great as Obama, I think the piece would have lost credibility right off the bat. Instead, you see Kingsley going toe-to-toe with Jeff as Comey and all of a sudden you realize sort of the level of performance you’re going to be getting in this thing. I think it tees up the whole show.
I mean, with a lot of the casting of real people, did you have an audition process with Kingsley, to make sure he could do the performance?
RAY: No, it absolutely a leap of faith. I knew his work. I knew how talented he was. I knew how committed he was. I thought the look was really good and I kind of loved the idea of having an Obama who was a non-American actor, in the same way that I kind of loved having a Trump who was a non-American actor. I thought they’d have a really interesting perspective on who those people were. It turns out that was a good instinct.
Wonderful. Another unconventional casting choice — I definitely had this moment of watching it without the cast list in front of me and going, “That guy looks a lot like Joe Lo Truglio. What would Joe Lo Truglio be doing playing Jeff Sessions?”
RAY: I loved Joe’s performance in the movie. I think he’s great. He bailed me out. I know Joe just a little bit and I begged him to do the part because that part, if it’s not handled right, could have been an absolute cartoon. I’m very, very lucky that he said yes.
That leads to a bigger question, because over the last several years, plenty of people have been doing impressions of Trump, but this was the first time I’d seen one done in a non-comedic context. How did you and Brendan approach finding your version?
RAY: Well, that was a big decision. Do you want to go do a cartoon of Donald Trump, or do you want to do Donald Trump, who some people think is very cartoonish? It’s a really tough line to ride and Brendan and I both felt that we had to play this really straight for the good of history, if nothing else, but just out of a sheer sense of fairness that our Trump was going to be less of a caricature than the guy actually is. His hair was going to be a little bit less cartoony than Trump’s and his makeup was going to be less cartoony than Trump’s and his suits were going to fit better, and the performance was going to follow from all of that. I mean, that’s how he’s written and that’s how Brendan played him.
When you’re on a set with a great actor, you don’t go up to them and say, “Can you be more of a mustache-twirling villain here?” You talk about what does the character want and how is the character trying to get it?
When I first wrote the script, I showed it to Director Comey and one of the very first questions I had for him was, “Did I get Trump right?” He said to me, “The experience of being in a room with Trump is like being hit by 10 fire hoses at once. And if you can manage to get your hands around one of those fire hoses, it’s a great achievement. And while you’re congratulating yourself, you’re still getting hit by nine other fire hoses.” A lot of times with Brendan on the set, I would just say, “Be the fire hose. Don’t let him breathe. Don’t let this guy up,” and that’s what Brendan did.
One detail that comes up a lot is the constant mention that Trump has a real talent for interior decorating. I’d love some backstory on why that was an important motif.
RAY: It was an important motif because it was something that everybody in the Trump White House had been instructed to say. I just thought that was so funny, the idea that of all the things that they’re going to give him credit for, that it was going to be interior design. It was something he said about himself and that then his minions went out and repeated about him. That just struck me as funny because it was true.
How many details like that do you feel like you were able to get into the script?
RAY: I got as many as I could wedge in there. There are a million that I left out. You could have made a whole other four-hour miniseries just out of the information available that we couldn’t fit in. There was actually a lot of conversation while we were shooting about was Trump going to say or do something that was going to give us a Night 3. One could make the argument that he now has.
In what regard specifically?
RAY: Well, I actually wrote to Brendan not long ago saying, “I think the next movie is Trump versus Dr. Fauci. Would you play Trump again?” He wrote back to me, “I’d rather play the virus.”
Is that just because he kind of feels like he’s already done Trump?
RAY: You’d have to ask him. I don’t know.
Right. Who would you cast as Dr. Fauci?
RAY: Jonathan Price.
Oh, that’s a good call. On the opposite side of casting: You have certain figures who are depicted only in archival footage versus people who you do have cast as actors — what goes into that decision process?
RAY: Well, remember, our story is about how heartbreaking it is to be a public servant. The only characters that I needed in this tapestry are people who helped me tell that story. Hillary Clinton is not a big part of our story. She certainly impacted it. But in terms of her daily contact with people, she didn’t have contact with Comey. It was better to have the real deal in the story. The same was true of Pence or Sean Spicer. These are not people that had a lot of contact with the hero of our story. It was better to have the real people in archival footage.
I mean, did you ever consider having Clinton as part as a character?
RAY: I probably gave it some thought in the very, very early planning of the script phase, but ruled it out pretty quickly.
So the original premiere date was in fact set for after the election, and it’s since been moved up. How did you feel about premiering initially in late November?
RAY: I was despondent about the idea that this might air after the election. It was clearly made with the intention of talking about what had happened in 2016 in time for Americans to do something about it in 2020. I think Showtime always knew that this show would attract a lot more attention before the election than after. And yes, I certainly did what I could do to try to nudge them towards reversing that decision. But ultimately they reversed it on their own. These are not dumb people. They made the right business decision and I’m very grateful that they did.
So I feel like when I’ve talked about this project with others, I’ve heard a lot of people say just anecdotally, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to live through that again.” Maybe you’ve heard similar comments — what do you say to them?
RAY: I say, “Watch five minutes, see the performances, you’ll stick around.” I will bet everything on my cast. They were extraordinary.
To wrap things up, this is such a left-field thing, but I was doing my prep for all this and I saw that you’re a credited co-creator of the show Earth 2. As someone who watched that show when it originally aired, I’d love to know what the story was there and what your involvement was with it.
RAY: This was very, very early in my career, and Amblin, which existed at the time, wanted to do what they described as “Wagon Train in outer space.” I went to work and wrote a bible for the show, which at the time was, I think the longest bible that anybody had ever written for a show. It was 75 pages long. Then they decided to go get a showrunner and they picked these three showrunners who worked as a team, and they would only run the show if they could write the pilot, so I was fired. That was it. I had no more connection to the show except for the bible that I had written. My name is on everything, but I actually had no impact on any of the individual episodes. It was really heartbreaking at the time.
That is rough. I’m sorry. In general, I feel like the life of a screenwriter is always full of stories like that, where you work on something for however long, and then your name still stays on it.
RAY: Yeah. But every once in a while you get your name on something that you’re really proud of. You hang in there long enough, you’re going to get a Captain Phillips and you’re going to get a Hunger Games, or you’re going to get a Richard Jewell, or you’re going to get a Comey Rule. You stand behind it completely and you’re really, really proud of it. It’s worth taking a few kicks in the head to get those kinds of credits.
The Comey Rule Part 1 airs Sunday, September 27, and the second part will air Monday, September 28. Both parts will air at 9 p.m. ET/PT.