Lio Tipton seems to be playing a fictional character in Peacock’s psychological thriller limited series “A Friend of the Family,” based on true events. But, as the Nick Antosca-created show proves, sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
Actor Tipton, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, portrays Latter Day Saints housewife Gail Berchtold, who seems to have the perfect life: a handsome husband (Jake Lacy), five adorable children, and kind neighbors, the Brobergs (Colin Hanks and Anna Paquin). Yet when Gail’s spouse Bob “Brother B” grooms and repeatedly kidnaps the young Jan Broberg (Hendrix Yancey and Mckenna Grace, respectively), Gail’s own abusive relationship with Bob comes to light.
“It was really hard. There is nothing decisive in where she stands,” Tipton said of Gail. “The person I was representing in a big way was the most fictional representation of any of the characters. Because of that, I tried to hone in on my relationship with Jake [Lacy]’s character. I never even saw a photo of Gail. But one of the most important things for me was to make sure I got how she thinks.”
The real-life Jan Broberg, who served as an executive producer on the Peacock series, told Tipton after production that she still uses Gail’s dinner recipes to this day and shared “all these wonderful stories” about growing up living next door to Gail and still “has nothing but wonderful things to say about Gail” decades later, per the actor.
“To be honest, it was very, very scary for me having such a personal relationship with the character in a big way,” Tipton said of taking on the role. “Playing music was one of the most helpful things that I did because I could not find compassion for this person and because I couldn’t find compassion for [Brother B]. I didn’t want to be on his side at all.”
Tipton continued, “For the story, because of legal reasons, Gail can’t know a lot. She has to kind of stay in that gray zone, and it was really, really difficult for me to do without having compassion. I just kind of hated everything I was saying if it meant protecting Jake’s character. I put it as: I’m going to assume Gail is intelligent. And because I’m assuming that Gail is intelligent, she’s not ignorant. And because she’s not ignorant, what would keep her in this situation?”
They said, “And I just kept going back to her kids and needing B to be happy so that my kids could be happy, because when he was stable and happy and got what he wanted, the family was OK. I focused on the fear Gail had and how much I just needed their father home because my boys miss him and whatnot, which allowed me to get in touch with a different side because there is a desperation. And so just the desire to please him, which is also at that time not too uncommon with the social expectations of women and wives, especially in the LDS community. It has very specific gender roles.”
Tipton added, “I never thought Gail was doing this because she thought anything bad would happen or that he would use this against them at all. I think that she really was ultimately trying to bring peace to the family and act a bit. I think she had multiple masks to put on to survive. I think a lot of people in abusive situations do that in a regular basis and may or may not know that. I don’t think that’s ignorant at all. I think that’s a matter of circumstance.”
Tipton’s star-making performance as a torn Gail who toes the line between trying to keep her family together and proving her sexual worth to an unstable Brother B carries the weight of every word onscreen. In Episode 3, Gail tells B that Mary Ann Broberg (Paquin) has certain intimacy issues with her spouse (Hanks), seemingly providing personal details that Brother B could manipulate and weaponize when grooming the Broberg family as a whole.
“That scene was really, really hard, the dinner scene telling B all about what I had learned, because of that reason that it felt like I was trying to help him,” Tipton said. “[Director] Eliza Hittman and I, we worked to figure out. Part of being in an emotionally unstable, abusive relationship is this cycle of dependency and how we learn to trust and love someone who holds the keys to everything that’s beautiful and happy just a little out of reach. And it’s this constant trying to be better so that you can live up to his expectations, what she has put on a pedestal because that’s one of the cycles of abuse.”
As showrunner Antosca exclusively told IndieWire, “Never Rarely Always Sometimes” helmer Hittman was critical in building out the “delicate psychological emotional character moments,” with both the pilot and Episode 3 serving as two different introductions to the Broberg family, the first sans Brother B and the third charting Brother B’s targeted mark on the family.
Dramatizing the events of the 1970s “Hitchcockian thriller” endured by the Brobergs and the Berchtolds was a “sacred” practice for Tipton, with both Antosca and Hittman at the helm. “I honestly now don’t know how to describe it. Everyone turned something on, and nobody carried things like that offset because how could we?” Tipton said. “There is no way to sit in that mentality and to really plug yourself with images that your acting brain has to put together, that you can’t help but feel and think. That was part of the magic when we were doing scenes. When we were all in costume, and it was time to film, there was just this heaviness that you could feel around the room. It was sacred almost. And then we would step off set, and I think we would remember that this is our story.”
Tipton shared that they “found comfort” in scenes opposite co-star Paquin as part of a “secret little shared experience” with both of their characters adult survivors of Brother B’s abuse. “I think abuse, in general, is a very shared relationship,” Tipton said. “I really relied on Anna with our bond.”
And it all goes back to the Brobergs themselves, with both Jan and the real-life Mary Ann on set as well.
“I don’t think any of us could have done it without Jan being our northern light to guide us,” Tipton said. “This was not a project that any of us could take home easily.”
“A Friend of the Family” is now streaming on Peacock.