Jake Lacy Weaponizes His 'Nice Guy' Image for 'A Friend of the Family'

The actor plays Robert Berchtold, who kidnapped Jan Broberg twice in her adolescence, in Peacock's true-crime limited series.
by Danielle Turchiano — 

Jake Lacy as Robert Berchtold in 'A Friend of the Family'


Getting inside the mind of a pedophile, narcissist, and kidnapper is a daunting, psychologically complex, unenviable task. But when tapping into Robert "Brother B" Berchtold for Peacock's A Friend of the Family, Jake Lacy had one very important similarity on his side: the art of acting.

"Jan [Broberg] is an actor herself, and she said to me, 'Of all the people I've worked with, I still think Robert Berchtold was the best actor I've ever worked with. His commitment to his full belief of this story is something I've never witnessed,'" Lacy tells Metacritic. "And so, to me, Robert Berchtold is trying to hit the same target that I'm trying to hit: I need this person to believe. There's some element of him acting: He is fully committed and giving the most nuanced, thoughtful performance he can because of what's at stake for him."

The real Berchtold was an assumed family man and church member who befriended the Broberg family in the 1970s. His relationship with parents Bob and Mary Ann Broberg was full of secrets he held over them and manipulation, both sexual and otherwise, which aided in him kidnapping their eldest daughter, Jan Broberg, twice during her adolescence. Jan and Mary Ann Broberg are producers on A Friend of the Family, working with creator Nick Antosca to dramatize their family's story and showcase the way Berchtold preyed on them and bent them to his will.

"There's salacious elements to this story, but the way that the story itself is told is not salacious in the telling of it, which is a very important distinction because a lot of what I think people designate as true crime, which this falls in objectively, is so, 'Look at the killer! Look at the blood on the knife!' And there's a weird grotesque allure to, 'Look how violent they are!' And this, if we did it right, is very squarely focused on the Brobergs and what the effects of grooming and predation have on the victim and the family and the community."

From his early days as a sweet-natured fiancé on Better With You and an equally mild-mannered "New Jim" on The Office, Lacy became known for playing nice guys. But things started to noticeably shift with the first season of The White Lotus, on which he played privileged mama's boy Shane Patton, a performance that earned him his first Emmy nomination. That performance also earned him the attention of Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, the writers, producers, and directors of Significant Other, a dramatic film about a couple whose backpacking trip turns deadly. (He booked the role of Harry, half of the couple opposite Maika Monroe's Ruth.) And arguably, it's also what led him to A Friend of the Family.

"I think because the outward view of Berchtold had to be a razor-thin parallel to maybe other guys I've played in the past, that was a plus; I was able to weaponize that," Lacy says.

Berchtold had to be charming in order to win over the Brobergs, for example, Lacy notes. It begins as just being neighborly, but he fixates on Jan (played by Hendrix Yancey in her younger years and Mckenna Grace as a teenager) almost immediately, which leads him to come up with ways to spend as much time as possible with the family and with Jan individually. And it's not about earning their trust, as he very quickly begins doing things the Broberg adults don't want him to do (such as taking Jan horseback riding).

"There's a little something in there of him consciously having to go, 'What button do we push to get you to turn this way?' And then 'what do we pull to get you to look at me that way?' And 'how do I get you to a spot where you're paralyzed with hope and fear?'" Lacy says of tapping into Berchtold's psyche. "He was a master manipulator and insidious and knew how to read people and then get them into a spot where they were stuck at a remarkable level."

Lacy had the benefit of two Brobergs attached to A Friend of the Family to better understand the relationships he was asked to portray. Since they were involved, Lacy shares, there were materials of both the legal (court documents) and extremely personal (letters and recordings) kind to use a research. He also read Lolita, a novel he feels Berchtold "had read most likely not as a comment on pedophilia and denial and insanity, but for pleasure," and tried to find ways to connect that into his performance.

And that performance had layers upon layers. Berchtold wore something of a mask with various people in his community, depending on what he wanted from them. But in order to peel back that layer and show how he was acting with those around him, the nine-episode limited series does spend time alone with him when "there's no one there to perform for," Lacy says. In those moments, he continues, "I hope you see the void that is in him: It's like the dead eyes of a shark in the water where there's nothing there other than consuming. He wants to consume this girl and consume Bob to just destroy him. There's a thing in there that is related to the pedophilia, but it's also destructive and narcissistic."

Berchtold even performs for Jan. Although he becomes a welcome family friend, as the title suggests — one who takes her on special outings and is trusted to give her "allergy pills," at a certain point things turn. When he kidnaps her the first time, setting off in his motorhome, he concocts a convoluted story about aliens and a mission Jan must complete that involves her performing special tasks with her "male companion," aka Berchtold. He rigs speakers so a scary voice assaults her when she is scared, tied down, and alone, and then he rigs them again when he is in the space with her, his body going rigid and his face falling still, as if he has been frozen by these other beings.

All of those details came from Jan Broberg's recollection of events, but Lacy and director Eliza Hittman, who directed Episodes 1 and 3 of the series, worked together on Berchtold's intention.

"She was like, 'I think he's playing the part of his good neighbor and good dad and community member, but also in a way is putting it out there that he's other,'" Lacy is quick to give his collaborator credit. "He dresses a little flashier, he shows up unannounced, he drives a fancy car. In a community that's saying, 'Do your best to be equal to your neighbor, do your best to not put people out to sort of be one with this community,' he is choosing to stand outside a little and go, 'I'm Steve McQueen; want to have a good time? Let's have a good time.' So, as his behavior gets increasingly other, people are inclined to go, 'Oh that's just B.'"

"The version of Berchtold that exists in our narrative, which is built out of the reality of it as we know it, is that he was diagnosed but not really treated as a manic depressive and also was a narcissist and also was a pedophile — not that any of those are linked in terms of cause and effect," Lacy continues. "The way I think you see it play out in our story is those highs and lows of mania and depression are often the catalyst for him to make a choice, but the choices he's making are built out of this obsession and pedophilia. So, when he decides, 'Today's the day we're getting in that motor home and taking off,' to me, there's some mix of more things are firing than there were a couple of weeks ago, and it feeds itself, in a way."

But A Friend of the Family never depicts the sexual abuse Jan experienced at the hands of this so-called family friend, a choice made from the earliest days of deciding to dramatize this story, which has already been told before in Mary Ann Broberg's self-published memoir, as well as Skye Borgman's 2017 documentary Abducted in Plain Sight.

Lacy says this is one of the first things he asked Antosca about when discussing coming on-board the series.

"I had said, 'Are you going to cast an 18 year old looks 14? How does that work?' And he was like, 'We're not going to show the abuse. From a narrative standpoint, I think it's more effective to not do it; from a creative standpoint, I don't know how we would do that; and from a human standpoint, I don't want to do that," Lacy recalls. And the actor agrees: "We don't need that in the world, and it doesn't serve the purpose of telling the story, and it's so grotesque to film that."

Although Lacy was tasked with portraying the hows and whys of Berchtold's behavior, A Friend of the Family at large expands out to hold the ensemble under the microscope. As episodes go on, and time goes by with Jan aging, Berchtold increasingly makes "crazy" choices, Lacy says, including calling the Brobergs the second time Jan is missing, saying, "We've got to find her" when he knows — and they are pretty confident — that he is the one who has her.

"Berchtold had attempted this before many times to very degrees of success and after his abuse and predation of the Brobergs, this continued on with other girls," Lacy says. But "the circumstances he was looking for, he found with the Brobergs: people in a time that pedophilia is barely known to the FBI, let alone a suburban family living in one small town, insular world, in a faith-based community where the tenets of that faith are forgiveness compassion, understanding, warmth, and also a marriage in which both partners are needing something they're not getting. He figures out how to give them both what they need. If he had a checklist of what he needs to play out his game, that's it.

"Part of what Jan would like to communicate by showing that is to say, 'You have a responsibility, if that's what's happening, to speak out and say something and call the authorities and report it,'" Lacy continues. "Not to go, 'Well, he's out of our life' because if anyone stays silent, it leaves the door open for this kind of predation to continue."

A Friend of the Family streams new episodes Thursdays on Peacock.

Get to know Jake Lacy:
On television, Lacy is best known for roles on the ninth and final season of The Office (Metascore: 66), Girls (80), Fosse/Verdon (68), and The White Lotus (82). However, he has also appeared in films including Obvious Child (76) and Being the Ricardos (60).