The barrage of true-crime podcasts, documentaries, and TV shows in recent years has resulted in an understandable level of cultural exhaustion with the genre, as well as extremely valid critiques of it. It’s been noted that true-crime series often are made without input or even consent from the real people affected by the crime, a conversation that has been reignited by a certain new series on Netflix.
So if you watched the trailer for Peacock’s A Friend of the Family and released a deep sigh or an eye roll, I get that. But keep watching. This is only a true-crime show in the sense that it tells the true story of a family that was the victim of horrific crimes. Narratively, creatively, and in its production, it deviates immensely from what we’ve come to expect.
A Friend of the Family tells the story of the Broberg family, and if you recognize that name, it’s because the double kidnapping of their daughter, Jan Broberg, by neighbor and family friend Robert Berchtold, was already depicted in a Netflix documentary, Abducted in Plain Sight. It’s an upsetting watch, and many of its viewers came away in disbelief, asking, “How the hell did the parents allow this to happen?” In A Friend of the Family — for which Jan and Mary Ann Broberg were executive producers — that question is fully explored. The show doesn’t include any graphic depictions of violence or abuse. Instead, it focuses on understanding what grooming is and what it can look like.
“Nick and Jan’s intention, or reason for telling it in this format, is to say, ‘I want to show you what it’s like when you are inside a family, a community, a friendship that is the result of grooming,’” said Jake Lacy, who stars as Robert Berchtold. Alongside him, as Berchtold’s wife, Gail, is Lio Tipton, whose performance immediately captivates — Gail is a complex character with conflicting behaviors, a contradiction Tipton is able to embody skillfully, vacillating from tearfully vulnerable to closed off and reticent.
It’s the latest role in a steadily growing acting career they embarked upon almost as soon as they left America’s Next Top Model, on which they were a contestant in 2008. Tipton never really wanted to be a model — they were playing the long game and still are, in a Hollywood that hasn’t always been welcoming. They spoke to the Cut about their role as Gail, how coming out as nonbinary affected their work, and what it was like working on a necessarily serious set.
What drew you to this story?
The first thing that always draws me in is the people attached. I’m a huge fan of Nick Antosca and Eliza Hittman. Working with Colin Hanks, Anna Paquin, and Jake Lacy, all of the ingredients were really wonderful. I don’t think I fully knew what I was getting into in the complexity of this story. The drive to tell it was because of Jan and Mary Ann. The show is based on their experience. And when you have someone who is willing to share that much of their life, you want to do it justice.
Your character was a hard one to pin down. Gail seems like an accomplice at first, and then we kind of see that in many ways, she’s a victim of her husband. How did you approach playing her?
It’s an open question how much Gail knows. I had a lot of meetings with Eliza about this, not sure if I should approach a scene — you know, should I have the undercurrent of I am doing this too as a way to brush things under the rug, or is Gail incredibly ignorant of the situation? My interpretation of Gail ended up being simplified. Every scene I went into, I focused on how much Gail is trying to keep her family safe and together. Within that performance, I really tried to not take any side. The only thing that mattered was, Is my family going to be okay? What can I do to make it better? I don’t think she ever wanted to hurt anyone else.
This show was very intentional about being very inclusive of the victims who actually experienced this. There’s been a lot of discourse lately around, for example, the Jeffrey Dahmer show because they didn’t really involve the families of victims who were portrayed in it. What responsibility do you have when you’re portraying something that really happened?
There’s a huge responsibility, and I think that because the actual people were part of it creatively, it grounded us as a cast and allowed us to feel this freedom to explore, because Jan gave her blessing to do that. Especially when it comes to things like grooming, these experiences are so unique to an individual that it’s priceless to have that.
Your character lives in a tight-knit religious community. Mormonism specifically is a religion that strongly rejects any kind of deviation from the norm and intensely enforces gender roles. There are very strict rules around sexuality and how it can be expressed. You came out as nonbinary just about a year ago, and I was curious what it was like to explore this role and the strict gender restrictions around it while also thinking about your own personal relationship to your gender.
When I came out, I was doing another project where I played as a female, and that was modern and I actually didn’t have to think about it much. This was the first project since then where it became a really important part of my process. In fact, it has loosened so many knots within me, because when I’m Lio, when I’m me, I’m me. I’ve fought against so many of these ties that Gail is in. When I put Gail’s wardrobe on, I felt all of the things that I’ve been so angry at in my life, in a way. Having removed myself from the direct impact, it doesn’t affect me personally as much. Otherwise I would let it get into my head, I’d be concerned with questions like “What I am saying for young women — am I playing a role that is promoting this kind of behavior?” But it’s actually very different because I’m playing a woman. I’ve learned myself, I know myself. Does that track at all?
Yeah, that totally makes sense. I imagine it’s something that is continuing to evolve for you.
I have thought about that, because I was so surprised I wasn’t being impacted personally by some of this. A lot of it is very relevant to me. It was interesting how finding that of myself protects and separates and gives me some confidence. I felt like I could tell her story better, because it was separate from mine. Before, I don’t even think I realized that I combined a lot of personal things with my characters. I always do, but now I get to do so in a much more free way.
This isn’t the first show or film to address abuse or violence within a really religious community that has strict rules around sexuality. I was wondering if you think there’s any kind of relationship there.
I think so. There are a few ways to approach that question. I feel like it takes more thoughtfulness than I’ve yet given it to answer. What I can say is that that oppression just heightens the fact that these families really were not ready for the reality of the situation, because of these boundaries and this type of setup that makes everything fine and muffles or stomps out anything that might be confusing.
You’re so good in this role, and I’ve loved seeing the evolution of your career, from model to actor. Was acting something you always wanted to pursue? And as you’ve grown in your career, was there a calculated approach to the types of roles that you were looking to play, or was it more intuitive?
I always liked performing, but I did not always want to be an actor. I wanted to be and want to be a filmmaker. And an astronaut. That’s kind of what led me into acting — a very messy path, but it went there. Filmmaking and storytelling and writing and being on the other side of the camera is still a driving force in my career that keeps inspiring me.
As for the other part of your question, it depends on the character, how much I feel like it deviates from me, and how much I need to separate my isms, or my tics, because I have a lot. And so each one takes a different level of awareness that I’m no longer Lio, if that makes sense.
Could you tell me more about what you mean when you mention tics and isms?
I feel like it’s quite difficult — for any actor, I’m sure — to get rid of things that you do every single day. I wouldn’t say I’m shy, but I think I have a difficult time socially. Something I do when I get self-conscious is I nod and I smile a lot. I say “um” and I pause, because I have to see the words. And so those are things that are very difficult for me to rid myself of, to basically empty it out so I can pour the concoction of the character in. And it’s exhausting. I think, actually, that coming out has helped that a bit because it feels more like, And now I’m putting on a costume.
You play vulnerable very well. I’m immediately seeing these restrictions around Gail.
Thank you. I think I’ve always felt like that in Hollywood. I got here, and I didn’t feel like I was wanted in the filmmaking world. I mean, it’s very difficult to get your voice in, at 19 in L.A. especially, back there and then as female presenting. I think with Gail, a lot of the drive behind the performance is also that same frustration that I’ve felt in Hollywood in general since entering.
It’s a constant challenge to present who I hope people see, and people just won’t. It gets very difficult. I think growing up, especially in adulthood, I came out into one world one way and am such a very, very different person. I think that resonated in my career trajectory, kind of fighting stereotypes or trying to be less abnormal feeling.
What was the energy like on set? Are there any fun memories from filming, despite playing such intense roles?
It was incredible on set. Between the adults and the kids, there was such a mutual understanding of the weight and seriousness of the content and the importance of the story. We really had to suss out, how do we go into a scene and come back as they change setups and drink apple juice when so many horrible things are taking place. We all found it was okay to leave it on set, and enjoying the process of making this did not diminish the significance we all felt while making it. Colin made us a tiki lounge with board games. The crew got in and were hanging things, and it really helped divide these worlds in a really healthy way.
That sounds so fun. Which board games?
We had Scrabble. Scrabble was the best because someone could take a turn and then you could leave the board. Lots and lots of Scrabble.
I love games.
I love games! My family does not play games. It’s the worst. I bring Catan everywhere with me and I’m so desperate for my family to play with me. Yeah, not happening.
There’s not a lot of the show that can be described as fun, but the set design and costuming created a very cool 1970s aesthetic. Was there a favorite piece that you wore or favorite prop you worked with?
Our wardrobe was authentic, our props were authentic, from the era. I had a pair of shoes that were so comfortable, and they were vintage. I had to walk through wet grass once, and because they were so old, the soles started to break. We were trying to finish a scene, and I had to tape them together. It was really hard. But they fixed it. I could have worn those shoes all the time.