Jake Lacy Talks Playing Against Type in the Creepy “A Friend of the Family”

Known for playing nice guys, the actor tells us about his villainous turn in the true-crime series

October 13, 2022 6:00 am
Jake Lacy in "A Friend of the Family"
Jake Lacy in "A Friend of the Family"

Jake Lacy is a nice guy. During our video interview, he’s polite and thoughtful and affable. These adjectives are also traits shared by a large number of characters he’s played on the big and small screen. But his most recent roles — as a douchey real estate bro in HBO’s The White Lotus and, most recently, a child abductor in Peacock’s new drama series A Friend of the Family — are finally allowing him to break free from that persona and showcase his full range as an actor. His portrayal of Shane Patton in The White Lotus earned him a nomination at this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie category. This month, he’s back on our TV screens as Robert Berchtold in Peacock’s true crime drama series A Friend of the Family. The late Berchtold was a convicted pedophile who, in the 1970s, repeatedly abducted and sexually abused his neighbor’s daughter, Jan Broberg. Broberg’s harrowing true story has previously been told via the popular 2017 Netflix documentary Abducted in Plain Sight. This new dramatic retelling from creator Nick Antosca — the mind behind Hulu’s The Act and Candy — brings audiences back to the scene of the crime, a small close-knit community in Pocatello, Idaho, to watch how the story unfolds and to witness Lacy weaponize his charm to transform into Berchtold, aka “B.” 

InsideHook: You’re known for playing nice guys — Vulture even did a ranking — but recently, between this and White Lotus, you’re swinging the other way. Is this a conscious choice? Are you hoping to get them to do another ranking for the bad guys you’re now playing? 

The Vulture ranking does not have that much sway in my life and career decisions, but I did appreciate the recognition. I’m constantly on the hunt for quality material and quality writing, whether that’s me as a solid boyfriend or good husband or a psychopath or entitled frat bro. I’m engaged by nuanced writing. Mike White is remarkable, which is why all of White Lotus is so wonderful. You don’t just go, “This one person was good.” It’s the same here with A Friend of the Family. Nick Antosca is a wonderful writer, and the directors that we had through the whole series were thoughtful and talented. It felt like we were all pulling in the same direction, and I can’t ask for anything more than that.

Your first day on set, you found a letter from Jan in your trailer. Can you share what she wrote to you and how it impacted your relationship to this project? 

Yeah, they had said Jan was available basically as a resource if I had questions. I kind of wanted to build this on my own and I think I also was scared to reach out. I thought, “Oh man, I don’t know if I’m ready for that.” I think she knew that and she’s an actor herself, so she wrote me this lovely note and the first half of it was talking about B and saying that he was warm and funny and generous and a great storyteller and could cry at the drop of a hat. That persona was his superpower. Then the second half of the letter was her saying, I’m in a healthy place. You can tell this story as it should be told. You don’t need to be prioritizing this job and your acting and also [worrying] “Is Jan okay? Are we doing right by her? Is this triggering for trauma? Unhealthy?

The first part of that letter was a great reminder that he was so convincing as a generous, kind neighbor that if that doesn’t work, the rest of the story falls apart, both in reality and in our limited series. He has to be charming and warm and kind. Then that second half really was the game-changer in an intangible way. To say, “Go forth, I’m rooting for you” is such an incredible gift and so selfless and generous. To have experienced what she’s experienced and then say to the actor playing her abuser, “Go for it. You’re going to be great.” I was speechless then and still struggle to find the words for what that meant to me as a performer, and the amount of work it must take to get to that place in your life to do that. I was really beyond touched.

Earlier you mentioned the word “psychopath.” Sociopath and psychopath are meaningful terms to psychologists, but are they helpful to you as an actor? Do you feel like you have to understand him to be able to play him?

I mean, to a degree. First and foremost is my dedication to the story and to these relationships and dynamics. Any research I can do to flesh that out for myself or to better color or texture what’s written is obviously of use. Trying to empathize and say, “This is why he was a pedophile,” and then find some kind of compassion or forgiveness is of zero interest or use to me. It doesn’t serve the story, and I’m not here to say there’s two sides to this story. That’s not the story we’re telling, nor do I as a person want to do that. Really, it’s more understanding “Why did he make this decision then?,” “Why did he choose this and not that?” “How did he know to operate this way and not that way?” And having enough information to make those choices in some kind of educated way.

Since I hadn’t seen the Netflix doc, the moment that really helped me was in the first episode when he does that little dance in the mirror before the abduction. That kind of crystallized for me what this is about for him and how he views himself. Was there a scene like that for you where it snapped into place and you thought “I get this guy”?

That dance is written, it wasn’t an impromptu thing — not that you’re implying that — but I’m saying that to highlight the quality of what they created here. That Nick had built that in was illuminating. I wouldn’t say it was a single scene, but early on I was speaking with Eliza Hittman, who directed episodes one and three, and she was talking about the layers of this person and saying, “Wow, he’s created this persona as the guy next door, a good husband, a regular church goer.” He’s not hiding who he is. There’s an element of brazenness where he dresses a little flashier than everybody else in Pocatello and he carries himself like he’s Steve McQueen. He walks around a little taller, with a little more swagger, a little like an outlier in this way that is then opening up these roads to saying, “Well, when I push this behavior a little further and further, the response from the community is like, ‘Oh, that’s just B.’” He’s not shrouding himself in this thing and then jumping out. He’s actually letting you know in a way who he is. That unlocked an understanding that while he’s not openly telling you he’s abducting children, he’s not necessarily hiding his intentions toward Maryanne, his intentions toward Bob. He is defining himself as an outsider for his own purposes. I found that to be a helpful path to start on.

I don’t know if you were a paranoid person before this, but you’re a father of two kids now. Did working on this make you more or less paranoid? Were you able to leave it on set when you came home? It’s a lot to think about as a parent.

I had more than my fair share of paranoia before doing this. It didn’t stir up something unknown to me. I didn’t think, “Oh, I should really watch out for this.” It was more of me thinking, “I’m the exact right amount of paranoid. My constant concern about new people in my kids’ lives is totally warranted.” At the same time, in this horrific cosmic sense, I’m having to go, “I can only control so much.” That means trying to talk to my kids about this and staying vigilant and giving my kids a sense of personhood and autonomy to be like, “If you see something and feel a certain way and somebody does something, you can tell me immediately, you can tell anyone immediately.” It only reinforced my concern, I suppose.

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