‘The Comey Rule’s’ Donald Trump is a menace, not a cartoon. Here’s how they did it

Brendan Gleeson portrays President Donald Trump in "The Comey Rule."
(Ben Mark Holzberg / CBS Television Studios / Showtime)

Donald Trump doesn’t really appear in Showtime’s “The Comey Rule” until 13 minutes into the second episode. Before then, the camera only teases his entrance with shots of crowded rallies and political commentators on TV, and shadows his unmistakable silhouette around a Miss Universe pageant.

“I mean, could there be a more stark contrast between Donald Trump, pawing at a bunch of beautiful women in bikinis, and the protagonist of our story, James Comey?” Billy Ray, the writer and director of the two-part miniseries, told The Times. “It also follows the model of ‘Jaws,’ one of my favorite movies of all time: Let’s not see the shark until we have to.”

Played by seasoned character actor Brendan Gleeson, “The Comey Rule’s” Trump is a stark departure from any previous portrayal of the president. It’s not Alec Baldwin’s depiction on “Saturday Night Live,” or even the real-life person who laughably sends tweets with inaccuracies and misspellings or performatively drinks a glass of water at a gathering. Instead, viewers get a more private version of a habitually public figure.

“This is the first major dramatic portrayal of Trump since he became president, and we took that responsibility very seriously,” said Ray. That directive applied to every department: “Let’s make his hair and makeup less cartoonish than Trump’s actual hair and makeup; let’s make Trump’s suits fit him better than Trump’s suits actually do. Let’s err on the side of fair play.”


Showtime’s “The Comey Rule,” about former FBI Director James Comey and President Donald Trump, can’t keep pace with the state of crisis we’ve become used to.

Sept. 24, 2020

Behind the scenes with Brendan Gleeson in "The Comey Rule."
(Courtesy of CBS Television Studios / Showtime)

To recreate the specific shape, volume and fineness of Trump’s hair, stylist Orla Carroll commissioned a baldpate prosthetic and also highlighted Gleeson’s real hair. “I blow-dried it together with Brendan’s own hair to merge them seamlessly, so as to create the illusion of it all being one piece growing out of Brendan’s head,” she said. Gleeson also had his eyebrows bleached and trimmed, and wore dental prosthetics throughout the shoot.

Gleeson’s skin tone merely echoes Trump’s now-signature shade of orange, which is cooled by the blues and grays in the lighting and around the set, but still contrasts with the rest of the cast. “I needed him to be a believable human being interacting with all of these other people, so I underplayed every other character to not have to push Trump into cartoony colors,” said makeup department head Craig-Ryan French.

Between takes, Gleeson’s most common touch-ups were removing the color from his lips and accentuating those white circles around his eyes. But there’s no makeup whatsoever on his fair hands.

“I had to break very basic rules as a makeup artist, like always making sure the face is balanced to the back of the hands,” French explained. “And his face makeup isn’t blended down into his neck or on his ears, so it’s like a woman with bad foundation along her jawline.”

As Barack Obama in “The Comey Rule” and Malcolm X in “One Night in Miami,” Kingsley Ben-Adir took on two larger-than-life figures — in overlapping shoots.

Aug. 27, 2020

Jeff Daniels as James Comey, left, and Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump in "The Comey Rule."
(Ben Mark Holzberg / CBS Television Studios / Showtime)

All of Gleeson’s lines are “things I know Trump has said for a fact,” said Ray, who based the script on Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty” as well as transcripts of Trump’s speeches and the president’s social media statements. Trump’s defenses against allegations of sexual assault, illegal election collusion and that scathing Steele dossier sound much more menacing when delivered by Gleeson: in a strategically softer voice, with minimal mannerisms and behind closed doors.

“When I first heard his voice, it was one of the greatest moments of my career, in terms of relief and the sheer thrill factor,” Ray recalled of Gleeson, who worked with a vocal coach for two months to nail Trump’s timbre. “It’s not overdone; it’s just enough so that it’s the essence of the character, as Brendan does in all of his parts.”

Airing just weeks before the presidential election, Ray hopes the project highlights Comey’s plight and shows viewers “how heartbreaking it is to be a public servant.” And what if Trump himself tunes in?

“I’m pretty sure it will wind up on his radar in some way, and I don’t imagine he’ll be too happy about it,” he said. “It’s really likely that I’m gonna get a mean nickname on Twitter. And I’ve already prepared my family that the IRS will probably do an audit on my taxes, and maybe the U.S. Postal Service will stop delivering my mail.

“He has his fingers on a lot of red buttons, and it’s possible some of them will get directed at me,” he continued. “If that’s the price that I have to pay to be part of the national conversation on how threatened our democracy is right now, that’s fine with me.”