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Mckenna Grace Found Hope at the End of A Friend of the Family

Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

There are no dragons in Peacock’s true-crime drama A Friend of the Family. Bob Berchtold, the titular family friend and pedophile who twice abducted the devout Mormon tween Jan Broberg in the 1970s, is a much less fantastical, and arguably more frightening, monster. Still, like Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke on House of the Dragon, 16-year-old actor Mckenna Grace faced an enormous challenge when cast as Jan in this harrowing story of abuse and brainwashing: She took over the role from 11-year-old Hendrix Yancey halfway through the season in order to portray Jan during the later years of this stranger-than-fiction story.

“There was a two-week overlap that she and I were both there at the same time, so I spent as much time with her as possible,” Grace recalls of the baton-passing. “I didn’t get to see any of her performance until I was already a month or two into acting as Jan, but I tried to imitate the way she smiled, the way she did certain things.”

Coming into the series after much of the cast had already been working together was “nerve-wracking,” Grace says, but it doesn’t show in her performance. She plays the older and, eventually, wiser Jan as a girl at the edge of madness, convinced by her abuser (played by The White Lotus’s resident creep Jake Lacy) that a dying alien race led by figures named Zeta and Zethra will destroy her and her family unless she does what he wants.

Watching this show front to back was one of the most harrowing experiences I’ve had as a critic. What was it like to make it?
It’s imperative to have a light set, because it’s hard to live in that all the time. And it was a really light, fun set. Mr. Colin Hanks, who played my dad, Bob, was amazing — we called the cast chair area the Broberg Bungalow, and we’d go and hang out there.

What about Jake Lacy? By the time I got to the end of the series, I was like, This character is the single most insufferable person I’ve ever seen. You just cannot believe that you’re still watching this guy—
Get away with it?

Think about how you felt watching it, and being like, Oh my God, no, don’t believe him! That’s me, except I had to stand there and pretend I was in love with him while everything in my body was screaming at me to run.

Jake … I mean, his character is just horrendous, the most vile human being ever, but he is so incredible. It’s always important to have trust whenever you have to portray a relationship as complicated and dark as that. He’s probably one of my favorite scene partners I’ve ever had.

In portraying this relationship, I could not come onto set and have a set-in-stone way that I wanted to do something or how I wanted the scene to go. It could go in any direction, and I’d have to play off whatever he’s giving me. That’s what Jan’s life was: She was playing off whatever he was saying, just hoping to hear a message from Zeta and Zethra, or hoping to play her cards right if he’s in a good mood today. If he’s in a bad mood, that completely changes the entire tone of the scene.

Certainly by the end of the series, as the story moves toward her 16th birthday, things between B and Jan get shaky. He became much more mercurial.
I mean, for Jan, she still fully believed him entirely. He was just becoming more unpredictable.

It’s hard, because I came in halfway through, and the relationship is already developed and she’s already brainwashed. Now, instead of a love between a girl and her second father who’s trying to protect her from these aliens, he wants it to be a love between a woman and a man. I really had to jump right into that — and Jan did too. She had to grapple with that, and figure out how to keep him happy. It’s her trying to show him, like, I can be a wife, and I can be a woman, but we all know that he doesn’t want her to be a woman. She was trying everything she could to do what he wanted, but she never knew what was going to happen.

She goes through so many things that are much worse, but one of the show’s most painful moments, for me, was when he forces her to wipe off the lipstick she wears to a meeting with him.
That was, for me, a definite moment in breaking Jan. Not only is that heartbreaking to her — “I thought you’d think I looked pretty! I thought this was what you wanted!” — but it’s also him making sure he still has control over her. When she wipes off the lipstick, it’s a relief to him.

You mentioned Zeta and Zethra, the aliens he claims are directing them to do what they do together. It’s not just that she’s being sexually abused by this man; it’s that he’s deceived her into believing she’s a messiah figure, and that if she deviates from this course at all, she and all the people she cares about will be horribly punished. I’m struggling to find the words to describe how frightening that is.
It allowed him to get away with it for so long. It’s a relationship built off fear, but not a fear of each other. You take a young girl and somebody she and her family loves and trusts. Then you frame it as, Not only are you going to die if this happens, but all the bad things in the world are going to happen to your family. And this alien planet is relying on you. All these alien children will die if you don’t complete this mission, and then your sister will take your place.

Not only that, but you’re telling this young Mormon girl, whose religion means a lot to her, If you fail the mission, not only will you be vaporized, but your eternal soul will be vaporized as well.

How do you feel that Jan’s religion influenced her responses?
As a young woman in Jan’s position, her faith and her religion meant a lot to her and her family, and religion is something beautiful that gives people something to believe in. To see it used as a power against someone? It’s difficult to watch.

You got to work with the real Jan herself. Did you consult with her about what she went through?
That was my main thing in taking this role: “Is Jan involved? Is she okay with this?” It wouldn’t be right to tell her story without her.

Anytime I had questions, I could message her. In the finale, when I go and see B for the last time, the dress I’m wearing is an exact recreation of one of the dresses she wore in a photo. I messaged her and was like, “Look, we recreated one of your dresses!” I thought it was so cool. Then she gave me a whole backstory to the dress, how her mom sewed little pads into her bra to make her feel more human. I was so lucky to be able to work in such close contact with her.

And she played your therapist too, right?
Yeah. How amazing is that? I did not know she was going to be playing that part until the week of.

Jan herself introduces the show in its first scene. She says, “I know it may seem unbelievable, but we lived in a different world back then.” Do you think there are lessons from Jan’s ordeal with B that are still applicable today?
I hope one of the main things people take away is that they can learn from the Brobergs’ mistakes. They’re very up front about it: They made every mistake in the book. And It was a very different time. The fact that the FBI agents didn’t even know what a pedophile was? That was shocking.

It’s easy to hide behind a screen and be like, Wow, that’s insane, but if that was me or my family, I never would’ve let that happen. You don’t know until you’re in that situation. Look at the pain and heartache the Brobergs went through: They still came together as a family afterwards. That’s one of the beautiful things about seeing Jan at the very beginning. It gives you hope that she’s okay. She made it out the other side.

Mckenna Grace Found Hope at the End of Friend of the Family