Like it or not, America has a true crime obsession. While poring over the details a high-profile murder or kidnapping case may be entertaining, there’s a major caveat that’s often forgotten. These programs are based on true events, which means some victims live with the consequences of the case for the rest of their lives. Jan Broberg, the producer and subject of Peacock’s A Friend of the Family, tells her story not to entertain, but to start a difficult conversation that could save lives.
Created by Nick Antosca, A Friend of the Family recounts the heartbreaking events surrounding the kidnapping of Broberg at the hands of Robert “B” Berchtold (Jake Lacy). Over the course of a few years, Berchtold manipulated and preyed upon the entire Broberg family before kidnapping Jan (Mckenna Grace as the older Jan and Hendrix Yancey as the younger Jan) multiple times. Colin Hanks and Anna Paquin star as Bob and Mary Ann Broberg, while Lio Tipton plays Robert’s wife, Gail.
In an interview with Digital Trends, the cast and crew speak about depicting an authentic story of abuse and manipulation, and why viewers will gain a greater sense of empathy toward the Broberg family.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: Jan Broberg was very involved with this entire series. What were your conversations like with Jan when you were trying to build this character?
Mckenna Grace: Even though she gave us so much freedom with the characters and with the story, I personally wanted to make sure that I did everything right by her. That’s so scary to think, like, “What if I offend her? What if I don’t do this right?” I didn’t, but it’s just that anxiety in the back of my mind and that little voice that’s like, “Err.” It was amazing to be able to have her there.
I would message her a lot and ask her questions. I would send her pictures from set, and she would give me whole backstories of the scene that we were shooting or what was going through her mind and what she was feeling at the time. The first time I ever talked to her, we were on the phone for about two hours and both of us cried and she told me so much. She’s such a beautiful person that I’m honored to be in her orbit.
Jan, I read that you left Jake a letter on the first day of production, telling him to go for it and not second-guess anything. Why was it important for you to encourage Jake to give such an authentic performance?
Jan Broberg: Well, I think if you’re going to relate to how our family was sucked in, you got to be a fully formed human that seems like the nicest guy in your neighborhood and church. That’s usually who it is, that abuser, that groomer, that predator. He’s made you his friends, not just the child, but the parents. The whole congregation loved him. To all of our neighbors, he was “Mr. Joe Service Guy” and “Hey, I’m here to help.”
When you meet somebody like that and they know how to build a relationship of trust with every member of your family, and all the kids make sure that they’re together enough to make those friendships happen, that’s a real telltale plan of a master manipulator who has a long game that they’re going to play. You don’t see it because it’s close to you. It was really important that [Jake] was the most charming, charismatic, nice-bad guy because that’s who that was in my life. I really like Jake, too. He’s actually a really good, nice guy without a nefarious plan. [Laughs]
Robert is depicted as a master manipulator. Jake, how were you able to channel all those qualities of Robert for your performance?
Jake Lacy: There was a scene a few episodes in which Anna’s character, Mary Ann, has come to my motor home, and I’m running through tactics to try to get her back into my orbit, basically. We had done it three or four times, and Nick and the director, Rachael [Paradis], were like, “It seems good.” I was like, “This feels so disconnected. It feels so uneven and not very honest work.” They both were like, “Well, the thing is that you, Jake, are looking for the humanity to link each of these tactics to another. And Robert Berchtold is devoid of that element.”
He is shamelessly hammering this person with seduction, and then guilt, and then shame, and then aggression, and then pleading, and then victimhood. All these things are back-to back-to-back. At times, when I felt adrift and not sure how to access that, a lot of it was going back and having faith in doing the very simplest thing in front of me. Trusting that the quality of Nick’s writing and the quality of the wonderful directors we had along for the ride kind of come together in this alchemy and offers that to a viewer. For me, to play crazy is the worst thing I could do.
How was it filming the tough scenes with Jake? What was the communication process like between you and Jake?
Grace: There was so much conversation that went into the thought behind every single scene because we would have to go back through it. If we were shooting two episodes at once, even in the span of two episodes, so much has happened. So we would have to stand there for a moment and then we’d say the lines and then we’d be like, “Wait, what has happened so far? What all has been going on? What point are Jan and ‘B’ at and what part of the story are we at?” The show has done a great job at leaving things [out]. Not everything has to be graphic. Some things are better left unsaid, focusing on the psychological effects of this master manipulator.
But Jake, I sing his praises 24/7. I talk about him all the time. I think that he’s brilliant. I think that he is a brilliant actor, and I’m very excited to see him in this role. He was just incredible in the choices and decisions that he made and an amazing scene partner to have. As an actor, it is amazing to have someone in a scene and you don’t entirely know what’s going to happen. You know what the scene is and you have an understanding and a safe place between you [two] for a lot of communication. He was just brilliant. A lot of what I did as Jan was reacting off of whatever B did, or whatever he said. Her life for a long time was just trying to react to whatever he said. So it was just it was amazing to act with him and work with him.
Television shows are made to entertain, but when they’re based on real-life events, it forces the audience to have empathy for everyone involved. How do you balance the drama with the empathy?
Nick Antosca: That’s a great question. I think they really go hand in hand. You have to get an audience to invest, and you have to get them to feel emotionally and psychologically connected with the people whose story it really is. Entertaining the audience is part of that. If you tell a true-life story that deals with really important issues and it feels like an after-school special or a public service announcement, that’s not what we’re setting out to do. That doesn’t stick with people necessarily in the same way. so it’s really important to capture an audience and create an immersive experience.
That’s what we try to do in everything we make. We’re all storytellers. This story inherently is gripping. You can’t stop thinking about the story when you’ve heard it. It was essential that we find that balance of authenticity and telling a really gripping, compelling story because that is what allows people to immerse themselves and invest and keep thinking about it and create awareness.
With such a disturbing subject matter, did you find it difficult at times to unwind at the end of a day of shooting, or were you able to kind of keep it light behind the scenes?
Lio Tipton: No. I think I can speak for all of us, as we all had to find our way of unwinding and doing so in a very healthy way that we’re able to snap in and out of. I feel like I did not have that nearly as much as I think. Jake.
Lacy: There have been characters that I’ve gotten to play where there’s some part of me that I’m sort of connecting into this character as a way to ground it for myself. That was not true here. [For] those other experiences, as “actory” as it sounds, it’s sad when that project ends and that character kind of turns into steam and goes away.
That was not true here. It was “lights on, lights off” after months of this work, stepping into B and then stepping away. Because of the subject matter in the story, to be focused and attentive and compassionate and serious throughout the day, and then afterward, to check out and go home and watch Arrested Development and play with my kids. To be like, “Let’s make this a light set,” it’s not going to be like that, so let’s let that go.
A lot of people may look at Jan’s story and think about how it could happen. They say, “This could never happen to me.” Jan talks about how they were played by a sociopath and master manipulator. After spending time with this character, have you gained a greater sense of empathy for the Brobergs?
Grace: Oh, yes. Jan was the one who was abducted, but their entire family was groomed and manipulated and preyed upon and tortured. All of them were victims. It does always frustrate me whenever I speak about the project because people can be so judgmental and really hop on and say, “Oh. Well, I watched this once, and I have this certain set of information. But if that was me in that situation, I would never let that fly. That would have never happened.” But you really don’t know.
And especially in their circumstance, it was the ’70s and a tight-knit Mormon community with somebody who was like a second father to their children and like a brother. It was premeditated. It was this insane emotional and physical manipulation of every person in their family. He was such a master manipulator and a sociopath that they did not know what was happening until they were in the middle of it. And even then, half the time they did not know what was happening. It was truly, truly insane, and I think that that is the scariest part about this. It could happen to anyone.
What do you think the biggest takeaway from this whole experience for you has been?
Tipton: Learning how to find empathy in a character in a place where you don’t want to put it.
Jan, as a producer on the series, why was it important for you to have such a hands-on approach in this production?
Broberg: So I think the beauty, for me, is that I was able to find the nuances that maybe somebody else hadn’t thought about — to be in the writers’ room and have them ask questions and to be able to actually answer them in authentic words and to be in our little hometown. I think all of that is what, again, will make that story relatable. I’ve heard my story many, many, many, many times in many, many, many different ways.
But, this is the way that might actually start a movement where the conversation around the watercooler or in your own family begins because the predator is someone close to you. It may be someone in your family or your congregation or your neighborhood. If you can start to talk about these things, and you’re not keeping it a secret, that is what’s going to move the needle. In 2022, it’s one in four girls. It’s one in six boys. If it isn’t you, it’s someone close to you. You know someone that this kind of child abuse has happened to, and it’s the least talked about. That’s why this was so important to be done in this way.
Antosca: Also, in terms of authenticity and in terms of how generous Jan was with her time and the partnership that we had, it was just as important that she told us the details of what they had for breakfast, the games they played, the TV shows that they watched, and how far the store was as it was the big dates of the events and the fact-checking. It was so important that we captured the texture of their lives so that you could get the context for the nightmarish stuff that happened here.
A Friend of the Family will premiere on Thursday, October 6 with four episodes, with the remaining five episodes dropping weekly on Thursdays through November 10.