Jeff Daniels: ‘The Comey Rule’

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Actor, Jeff Daniels. Photo courtesy of Sam Jones.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Emmy-award winning actor Jeff Daniels. Daniels’ newest project is the Showtime miniseries “The Comey Rule” based on former FBI director James Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty.” Daniels won an Emmy for his role in HBO’s “The Newsroom” and has appeared in more than 70 films, including “Terms of Endearment,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “The Squid and the Whale” and “Steve Jobs.” Daniels talks about how his role as Will McAvoy in HBO's "The Newsroom," opened up a new phase in his career as a leading actor. He also discusses the power of stillness in some of his most recent roles, and he tells Elvis about a memorable backstage meeting with Justin Timberlake during his run as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" on Broadway. And Daniels talks about why he only wants five words or less from a director.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. We've all come to know actor Jeff Daniels as Flap or Lloyd, but in the past decade or so, we've come to know him for playing men with gravitas. Some of them real figures, such as his turn as FBI Director James Comey in the Showtime miniseries "The Comey Rule." Watching "The Comey Rule," I was even thinking about "The Looming Tower," when you play characters who, I think for you, are uncharacteristically quieter than we are used to seeing you do. What's that like for you because Comey is somebody who sits in wait a lot?

Jeff Daniels: He listened a lot, and he was a good listener, and he probably is a hell of a poker player because those guys have to have that kind of deadpan, kind of no tell at all. Certainly that was what came away, researching to get him up, and so it really became about a portrayal of thinking your way through it. I mean, actors always say that, but, in this case, it really was true, because even back in October 2016, when the Hillary email case was reopened, I remember thinking something like: what is he thinking? And this shows you what he was thinking, and I learned a lot researching: how he really was between a rock and a hard place and had to choose what he felt was right, what was true, what he was supposed to do. Getting to those big decisions in the movie was all I was doing. Every day, I just hung my coat on: think your way through the scene.

KCRW: Between John O'Neill in "The Looming Tower" and playing Jim Comey, you're playing guys who politically are probably 180 from you, aren't you? 

Daniels: Yeah, I mean, John O'Neill. What a story that was, and when you find out what happened to him at the end, you couldn't, you shouldn't write what happened to him. He was a bull in a china shop. There isn't a lot on John O'Neill; there were a couple of video interviews, and you know, his accent came out of the Midwest. Even though he was described in Larry Wright's book as kind of a Jersey mobster, he sounded like he was out of the Midwest. And he did have a Chicago history for a while. But he was just: on his mind, out of his mouth. It was 180 degrees from Comey, and yet these guys were still big time FBI guys. 

I learned a lot about the FBI in both of them. The dedication to something bigger than yourself is what guys at the FBI do and certainly public servants, like Comey and then Fiona Hill, Colonel Vindman. This devotion to something larger than yourself, more important than you, that has to be that integrity of that thing, that institution, that truth. That rule of law has to be bigger than you, and you have to follow that always. Both O'Neill and Comey had two different ways of doing it.

KCRW: In the last few years, you've done a number of these people who are devoted to basically a calling or mission, even Will McAvoy in “The Newsroom” or certainly Atticus Finch. In the last 10 years of your career, you've almost gone to these poles with the exception of "Godless," of these guys who really are attracted to mission and become the de facto leaders-- in the case of Comey, real leaders--and I wonder if that's something you found just made its way to you or if this is the kind of stuff you are actively looking for.

Daniels: I'm an oldest son; I have led. I've been captain of football teams so I always had leader in me. But when you go to New York to be an actor, you're following everyone else who got there before you. And I think there were a lot of times and a lot of productions, whether in the theater, and certainly by moving to Michigan, I took a lot more supporting roles. If you really want to star in movies in your 30s and 40s, you don't move to Michigan.

I wasn't leading and even with "God of Carnage," when we did that on Broadway and then out in LA, that was with Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis and Jim Gandolfini. When Jim said yes, we all had jobs. But it wasn't until "Newsroom;” it wasn't until Aaron Sorkin said I want him, that I got to lead the way, which is a different version of starring. I think they're different. Aaron gave me a chance to star and to certainly lead the way with that Northwestern speech in the first 10 minutes of the first episode. And I think it's a lot like what Redford said about getting out of the gate as Sundance; that's who you are now. We have decided that you are Robert Redford, Sundance Kid, and all you're going to get is roles like that. Certainly with "Terms of Endearment" and Flap Horton, I got weak, ineffective cheating husbands for five years.

KCRW: But you went basically from that to "Purple Rose of Cairo." You got to play both neurosis and leadership. 

Daniels: Yeah, that's true. Models early for me were Dick Van Dyke and Jack Lemmon. Those guys: you could see right through them; you knew exactly what they were thinking because they couldn't hide anything. And I think that's one reason why "Purple Rose" worked. You could see right through both those people. I didn't hide much. I didn't do the Brando, De Niro, Pacino thing where you're thinking something and it's a secret. That's a real simple actor trick, not to belittle those guys, but I wasn't doing that dangerous “what's he hiding” thing. I was Jack Lemmon, you know, walking face first into the wall. “Something Wild” was like that. That's Dick Van Dyke and Jack Lemmon had a baby, and it was me in "Something Wild." But it wasn't until "Newsroom" that I got to lead the way again, and then it was just like dominoes, then they can see that you can do that. And I think that everything that I've done in the last 10 years is because of "Newsroom."

KCRW: One of my favorite roles of yours is in "The Lookout." There's a kind of a weight to him, and also, given that he's blind, he has to basically be able to understand what's going on around him. And for some reason I thought of him, that character, and watching the way you played Comey in the way he would wait it out. 

Daniels: I know Jim Comey has written another book and I think it has to do with leadership. That's a big thing with him. When you ask Comey, what's "The Comey Rule" about, Jim says it's about leadership. We think it's about some other things: the struggle of being apolitical in a politically divided country; the difficulty in just simply being a public servant in today's America, how you're being vilified by Trump and the White House and the Senate Republicans and all that. 

Leaders do things in different ways, and Comey is a very generous, open guy, and he wants to know what you think. He's going to do what he thinks is right. People have accused him of being well, Jim thinks his right is bigger than your right to the point of being self righteous. I didn't find that, but I found a guy who's, by the way, brilliant, to be where he's been with his career as a prosecuting attorney in Manhattan, Southern District, the FBI. But, man, did he know how to lead a team and get people to follow him in a very difficult situation like the FBI. That's not easy to do, and he did it by listening. He wanted to know what other people thought, and then he took it in, honestly considered it because the guy's like, I mean, they accuse him of being a Boy Scout. Well, he's just honest; he is honest. Capital H, that's it. Don't look for anything else. And so you ride that in a world where people are going yeah, but let's bend the rules. Jim Comey doesn't get off that highway.

KCRW: There's one scene early on in "The Comey Rule" that really shows how collected he is: an early meeting that you're having with Peter Coyote as Robert Mueller, and he flings paper at you and you're just kind of: Okay, now what? That, to me, is real leadership, a guy understanding also about listening, all these things we're talking about in that one scene. As he just sits and calmly asks a question, he immediately changes Mueller's temperature. I want to ask you about the scene in particular, because it really stuck with me.

Daniels: It actually happened because I asked Billy Ray, the writer-director. I'm going, Billy, really, are we? He really? Yes, it happened. It's in the book. That's right. I read the book. So what's he going to do? Take the papers, wad them up, and throw them back at Bob? And take off his coat, go at each other over the desk? What do you do when the guy obviously is bitching all the way down the hallway to get into the desk and then now he's sitting there and you know he's in a bad mood. Something's not right with Bob Mueller. You make one innocent remark and bang, papers come across. It's probably not you. It's probably something you don't take personally right away. And Jim, that's how he kind of did. It was just: what's going on? I mean, without having to say it, what's really wrong, Bob?

KCRW: But you know, there are things you could have done, you could have sighed, you could throw your hands up, the sort of things that would indicate that you're the leader, that this is your scene, really, that in this transition of power, this is about you. But you don't do any of that. 

Daniels: I just chase instincts, and I don't plan a lot. If you're thinking like the character, if you're listening, and I mean, you're trying to remember lines and things like that, but you're also trying to let go, so you could just honestly react. And I think it has to do with a little bit of shock, but also that poker face that these guys have to have all the time. The last thing you would do is show Mueller how he felt. "Bob, why'd you throw that at me?" I mean, I don't see it. I see it kind of, "what did you do that for" versus let's escalate the confrontation. It's not about Comey, and I think Comey instantly and instinctively knew that.

KCRW: In that moment, did you think, okay, I've got this guy now? I know who he is because this is how he'd do this.

Daniels: Well, first of all, it's not a surprise; it's in the script. So it wasn't like it was an ad lib, and you knew what happened the moments after so there is kind of a roadmap on how you're supposed to kind of handle it. There are times when, again, like the difference between a "Something Wild," where the heart is on the sleeve and Dick Van Dyke, Jack Lemmon, it's all out there to see and you see 13 things happen after the papers get thrown. This isn't that. Comey wasn't that. Comey didn't show you how he felt. He showed Patrice how he felt. I had the guy. I was certainly comfortable reacting like it felt authentic when I did it. 

KCRW: I just think that this is a part of your career where you say: okay, this is how a grown man acts; let me do this.

Daniels: I think also, Elvis, it's that I've written. I've written plays for my Theatre Company, 18 plays. When you work beginning, middle, and end, when you work story structure, when you work what the scene is about as a writer, it informs you as an actor, so the scene isn't about Comey having some reaction to that as much as it is about what Mueller says next. It's Bob's scene. It's Peter's scene, whether that comes from the supporting roles for you basically, catch it and then you toss the baton to Meryl or whomever, and they have the big speech. As a writer, I know where the scene is supposed to land, I know where it's supposed to climax. And the climax isn't Comey's reaction. Whatever I do after those papers come across the desk has to lead us a step up into what Bob says to end the scene, which is something like: next time the President asks you to stick around for two years after a 10 year term, say no. Scene. So that's where we're trying to get, and as a writer, I know that. 

Part of it's the age and the wisdom and kind of knowing that this is enough. If I'm thinking it, they'll see it, which is what you learn about film acting. If you think it, the camera will see you thinking, but you have to be thinking something. You can't just stare off into the sunset and count to 12.

KCRW: I wonder if you liked this, because after playing so many guys who were so voluble, and letting people know how they're feeling, playing somebody who is kind of the consummate poker player, who will basically not even let you know what the cards are, even after he's won the hand.

Daniels: What made it an easier decision was I was in the middle of doing Atticus Finch on Broadway. I was in a year-long run; it was like month seven, when Billy Ray came to the show, and came backstage and said, I want you to play James Comey. I had to think about it, but I did look into the similarities. What I found, not right away, but I found it was the power of silence, the power of stillness. That's what it is. 

I was doing Atticus, and it was a huge success, personally, as a production, five stars, box office. This is what you dream of, if you're a young actor, it happened, and I'm living it. So you get celebrities to come back, and that's just gold. I mean, people you never would have met are now coming back. One of them was Justin Timberlake. Never met him, but he and Jessica Biel came back, and Justin talked about the power of stillness that I used. Because it's Atticus Finch, he pretty much stays inside the vest. And to be on a Broadway stage and to still have to play to the balcony was a daunting acting challenge. I tried to make Atticus pull the audience onto the stage. It's kind of what you do, when you're in a close up, you pull the audience into you; you use the camera, you use whatever you're doing to pull them in. And there are many film acting tricks, but there's also just the art of figuring out how to do that, and pulling that off on a Broadway stage. It's not what Broadway is supposed to be. It's supposed to be larger than life. It's supposed to be big. And here I am, not moving. 

And Justin came back, and he talked about seeing Michael Jackson for the first time when he was a kid. And Michael came out and just did two minutes with backlight and smoke, and all you saw was the silhouette of him. And after a minute, one arm started to go up and the place went absolutely nuts. And he goes, and you were doing things like that. Yes, that's what I'm doing. I stop right here, and 1400 people don't move. Then I continue or I pull them in, and then I lay that line that I really want them to hear. Comey had that ability to just listen and not do anything. And I think that probably doing Atticus for a year gave me the confidence to just sit and think and not show Trump what I'm thinking at the loyalty dinner. But somehow let the audience see it. And that's the trick.

KCRW: In these characters, Louis in "The Lookout" and Atticus and Will McAvoy and Jim Comey and to some extent, even John O'Neill, you try to find ways to play out an old fashioned Midwestern ethic, which is decency.

Yeah, I mean, certainly in McAvoy, he's coming out of Nebraska and he does land on that. And it's kind of what we're known for, you know, plain spoken, simple, and we know how to spell decency.

KCRW: With Will, it's a macro demand to be heard. For Atticus, it's understanding the power of words and when they land, and when they don't. For Comey, it's about listening and also knowing how to delegate, so knowing how to choose a team, so that you don't have to say that much, actually. All these things we're talking about are different ways of showing decency. And I just wonder, as you're sitting and you're making your notes, and getting ready to tackle these roles, you think, how am I showing who this guy is at his core?

Daniels: Well, I think you're right in that they're all chasing the same north star, and that's to get it right, truth, to fix what's wrong. It's the noble journey; each one of these guys and all in their different ways, but they're all chasing something good, decent, right. And it's the obstacles thrown in front of each of these guys and their reaction to getting past those obstacles, that's where the character lies. They all do it differently. And that's where you're shown who the guy is on his way to that thing. 

KCRW: In, "Godless," that is certainly a very different North Star that he's pursuing.

Daniels: Yes. You know, his definition of decency is a little different. Yeah. 

KCRW: One of the things that I thought was so much fun about watching that character  is the amount of pleasure he took in his life.

Daniels: Yeah, well, he wasn't afraid to die; “this ain't my death.” So he had this kind of: it ain't happening today. So I can sit on my horse in the middle of this gunfight, and enjoy the view. He did enjoy killing people, make no mistake there, he did find pleasure in that. Most of the time.

KCRW: "Godless" is somebody who sees people who want the right thing, and takes pleasure in taking that away from them or being a predator.

Daniels: Yeah, but his right thing is bigger than their right thing, so he wins. And that's kind of how I approached it. It's not that you're wrong; I'm just more right. And, I need what I need, and I want what I want. Whatever it was that Frank Griffin wanted, it was big, and he convinced himself that it was the right thing when it suited him. Frank Griffin needed so much psychiatric help, but every town he went into, there was no shrink shingle hanging outside the saloon. He never found that office. So you're playing somebody completely out of his mind, so you get to be completely out of your mind. Nothing needs to make any sense with a guy like Frank Griffin. I want what I want. And that's it. That's all I see. Nothing's right. Nothing's wrong. You're in the way; good night; you die; now I need to go over here. 

KCRW: There's something that kind of binds all these guys together; they all live by the judgment of other people. Will McAvoy announces that he's great at reading people; even when he's not, he thinks he is. So there's this idea of these guys who want to be able to suss out what's going on with other people. These guys, who want to be able to have an understanding of what other people are like and what they have to offer, sometimes for selfless reasons, sometimes for selfish reasons. 

Daniels: Yeah, but I never think like that. How simple can I make it? What do I want? What does he want? In this scene, what does he want? Gotta want one thing. What is it? Okay. I mean, you're hanging the ornaments on his behavior, how he looks, how he feels, how he walks, how he thinks, but what does he want? That's it. 

I remember telling directors on "Newsroom" because we'd get a different one with each episode. And that was my first experience with the rotating director thing. They said, how do you like to be directed? I said, five words or less. If it takes you more than five words to tell me what you want me to do, you need to stay in the chair. Because you'll confuse me. I want one thing. I got 1000 things to remember with Sorkin and the lines and this and that. We've got no rehearsal, and I've got to react at the same time. I want five words or less: you want her to love you; you want her to hate you; you want her to leave; you want her to stay. You want it, whatever it might be. And then I tape that to the inside of my forehead, and I act through that. And 75 other things will happen that you let happen in take one, that you let happen again in different ways in take two. Then he changes, he says let's try, you're not as angry at her. Okay. All right. And the thought is, you know, keep the lid on it. Action. Go. And that's what you do.

The discovery between action and cut is where the fun is in film. It really is. And so there isn't any more thought to it. Also, since "Newsroom," the writing is great. I've had great writing for however long it's been since the first season in "Newsroom," and that solves enormous problems because you can ride it like Secretariat. And that makes my job so much easier, that it's doing a lot of your work for you. So you just have to tell the truth. And that's how I approach it. Then people get excited after, we say cut: my god what you did in that scene! When I'm at my best and I'm so in the moment because things are being discovered between action and cut on take five and they go, Oh my god! And I'm going, I have no idea what I just did. I don't remember. It just happened and it's gone. For me, that's where the fun is. That really is the exciting thing about film acting for me, and it has taken me 30 years to find that. But I found it.



Rebecca Mooney