“I also was quite surprised,” Joe Lo Truglio admits when I ask how in the world he ended up getting cast as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Showtime’s The Comey Rule. For one, the Brooklyn Nine-Nine star is almost entirely known for comedy and the new two-part series—based in part on former FBI Director James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty—is deadly serious.
On top of that, Lo Truglio is about a quarter-century younger than the septuagenarian Alabama politician. “You know, it’s not like I’m super good looking, but I’m also not 70 years old,” the actor jokes on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast.
But somehow, it works.
The first thing Lo Truglio wanted to know when he got the part was, “How are we going to do this? What’s the plan?” Director Billy Ray, best known for writing the screenplays for other “based on a true story” films like Captain Phillips and Richard Jewell assured him, “Trust me, we’re going to present this in a way that isn’t a cartoon.”
The Comey Rule, which will premiere on two consecutive nights this Sunday, Sept. 27—just five weeks before the 2020 election—is notably the first real dramatic portrayal of the Trump administration. After five years of comedic impressions from Saturday Night Live’s Alec Baldwin, The President Show’s Anthony Atamanuik and pretty much every late-night host, Irish actor Brendan Gleeson portrays Donald Trump as a self-obsessed, venal monster without a shred of humor.
“It was refreshing to see it put in a new context,” Lo Truglio says. “You know, it’s very easy, because of the actions of this president, to really go after the ridiculous nature of things he says and does.” But to “instead concentrate on this very small human element of him—if that is there,” he continues, “really enhances the gravity of the situation in the White House right now. And I think you have to have that to underscore the bigger picture of what really is happening. In order to see that clearly I think you need a smaller, dramatic portrayal.”
It’s the same approach Lo Truglio took to playing Sessions, as you can see below in this exclusive clip of him acting opposite Jeff Daniels as James Comey.
“It was really exciting to be on set and watch Brendan Gleeson and Jeff Daniels just go to town,” he tells me. “It’s just a master class watching those guys. They both did wonderful work, but Brendan in particular; it’s understated and quite scary in a sense and he doesn’t really do a caricature of the man.”
Lo Truglio says he was even more impressed that after the camera stopped rolling, Gleeson would break character and return to his thick Irish brogue—while still fully made up as Trump. “He has such a vibrant, friendly personality,” he says, noting the enormous “contrast” with the president.
Though he’s best known for comedic roles in films like Wet Hot American Summer, Superbad, Pineapple Express and more recently on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Lo Truglio says he started out his acting journey as a “pretty annoyingly serious dude” entering NYU film school at 17 years old.
“I thought I would end up being either De Niro, Pacino or Scorsese,” he half-jokes. It wasn’t until his dorm-mate Michael Showalter encouraged him to join a new sketch comedy group on campus called The State that he found himself on a trajectory towards a career in comedy. That now-iconic group, which landed a short-lived MTV series after college, also included current comedy stalwarts Michael Ian Black, David Wain, Ken Marino as well as Reno 911 creators Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, and Kerri Kenney.
“I don’t think any of us thought we were all going to have the success that we ended up having individually,” Lo Truglio says. “But I think collectively we knew that together we could make something that was larger than ourselves. We had a lot of arrogance that comes with youth where ‘our shit doesn’t stink’ and ‘we know everything.’ And I think that carried us very far.”
After The State more or less disbanded in the late ’90s, Lo Truglio spent years stealing scenes with bit parts in dozens of comedy films without ever really landing the “one breakout role” that his agents promised would make him a movie star. It wasn’t until he became a main cast member on Brooklyn Nine-Nine in 2013 that people started to recognize him as more than “that guy.”
Now, with The Comey Rule, he’s trying out life as a dramatic actor. “I approached it by trying to do an impression that was accurate, but not too big,” he says of his Sessions portrayal. It helped that his wife—Orange Is the New Black’s Beth Dover—grew up in Alabama and still has a lot of relatives there.
“My wife’s family on her mom’s side live in Alabama and they’re deep in the heart of it, deep-seated Republicans. And her aunt is actually friends with, or at least knows Jeff Sessions,” Lo Truglio explains. “So one of the things I had fun doing was calling her up after I got the part to say, ‘You know Aunt Brenda, guess who your very liberal, progressive, nephew-in-law is going to play?’”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Stand-up comedian whose new special ‘Welcome to Buteaupia’ premieres on Netflix Tuesday, September 29th, Michelle Buteau.