Jan Broberg Felt, the real-life woman at the heart of Peacock’s narrative series “A Friend of the Family,” wants people to realize her story could happen to anyone. Throughout the series’ nine episodes, audiences have watched Jan Broberg (played as a child by Hendrix Yancey and a teen by McKenna Grace) grow up as the groomed, manipulated victim of pedophile Robert Berchtold (Jake Lacy). And yet, for as wild as the story is, the real Broberg Felt reiterates everything was true.
For her, it was the key reason she decided to tell her story in a narrative format, after participating in a 2017 documentary called “Abducted in Plain Sight.” It was “telling the story in a way where you could be drawn into the characters, where you could see the psychology of a groomer, of a predator, and how they operate and lead not just the child, but lead the whole orbit around the child, so that they are consumed with their own relationship with him,” she told IndieWire via Zoom. “That happens all the time.”
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Children, especially female children, are so often told to deny their intuition. Broberg said she wants the series to illustrate how one should listen to their initial senses about people. “When you have that spidey sense that something’s off you dismiss it with your second thought,” she said. “You have the first thought, ‘Ooh, something’s off.’ Then second thought is ‘Oh, but wait, that’s the doctor of the USA gymnastics team. Wait, that’s the favorite coach, the favorite teacher, my priest, my pastor, my bishop, my brother-in-law, my grandpa.’ That’s how deep and how close it is.”
She went on to discuss the truth and fiction behind the series as well as her reaction to sitting down with Lacy, who plays Berchtold, for the first time.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and narrative flow.
IndieWire: What enticed you to want to do a narrative take on your story?
Jan Broberg Felt: I really felt like the story wasn’t complete. I’ve had many opportunities to go and publicly speak about my story, and try to help people understand what grooming is, and how they can also survive, and heal, and have hope, and reclaim their happy childhood at a different age. I felt the need for the narrative because people misunderstood or they didn’t know that it related to them, and that was really important to me. I’m like, Oh, you think you’re smarter or you think you’d know. I’m telling you [that] you don’t know. Not even that you wouldn’t have known, but you don’t know right now, today, because you’re not looking in the right place.
Telling it in a narrative way allowed people to relate to the characters, to relate to the people as if this could be me, because it is you.
And a documentary can often be like medicine compared to a narrative.
I continue to go and do public speaking. I hope I get to do a lot more of that now that I have the new book out, “The Jan Broberg Story.” I started a foundation, I’m doing a podcast…we’re podcasting with other survivors and the production team on “A Friend of the Family.” We’re really making a forward movement [so] something happens to change the fact that two out of 10 and one out of 10…this statistic of boys and girls who are sexually assaulted and raped by somebody that they know before the age of 18. That’s just not acceptable in 2022 and it’s reality.
That’s why I have a foundation because people don’t know what to do when they know something or something’s happened to them. A teenager doesn’t know what they don’t know, an adult doesn’t know what they don’t know. That’s the case as it was in my life, and with my family, as it is today. So how do we help people? That’s why we started telling our story in the first place. If it doesn’t help anybody, we had no interest in telling some salacious story. We were honest, and vulnerable, and exposed, and very truthful, which I think is what makes the story so incredible.
You introduce the first episode. Can you talk about balancing the truth with what’s needed for a narrative entertainment?
Nick [Antosca, showrunner] and I were talking about this. He said, “You know, Jan, your involvement, and your family’s involvement was imperative for us to tell an authentic story.” So, first of all, he gives me a lot of credit for that. We have boxes and boxes of everything, from letters, and books, and diaries, from family members. To have all of that context…was good.
I was so protected from everything that this dark, deep secret could happen. We had a wonderful life, so the fact that somebody can enter into that and manipulate everybody separately, build friendships, and trust, and love everywhere in order to get to me, to the child, is what is so terrifying about the story. I’d come into the writers room and had read a portion of a script, or different pieces, and then they had questions. I give these deep, long-form answers [on] everything.
Getting all that nuance into the fabric of everybody’s writing, and acting, and the way they designed the sets and the costumes, even the lighting. I just look at it and go, “That really looks like how it felt,” to get that emotional connection to what it was. There’s hardly anything embellished in the story. If anything, we had to leave things out.
When I talked to Jake even he was thrown by some moments he thought couldn’t be true. Were there moments where you had to confirm for people these things happened?
I knew that would happen. There were several [who] had been cast when I went out to Atlanta the first time, before the actors got there. We were looking at sets and costuming, it was great. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll write a little letter to the people [who] have been cast, just to let them know. I don’t expect this to be an impersonation. You don’t know us. You’re geniuses in your own right.’ As actors, you take your everything you have, but ground yourself in the humanity of the people, even for Jake. The first time we met in person we both were kind of like, “How do we talk to each other?” He’s such a fantastic person, and he’s a father as well.
[The letters were] my way of saying it’s okay to do it your way but just know some of the characteristics about these real human beings and who they were. And then these horrible choices that somebody makes is such a juxtaposition because you don’t see the predator because he looks like the nicest guy at church, or in your community center, or your boy scout troop, or your sports team, or your gymnastics team. It’s tricky.
“A Friend of the Family” is available to stream on Peacock.
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