Jake Lacy – from nice guy to the man the viewers hate

From playing parts that are too good to be true, to those so bad you wish they were not  (Matt Licari/Invision/AP)
From playing parts that are too good to be true, to those so bad you wish they were not (Matt Licari/Invision/AP)

Before Jake Lacy became Shane, the odious newlywed in last year’s smash-hit class satire The White Lotus, the 37-year-old actor was famous for playing nice guys. Not just good guys, but human beings so exceedingly pleasant in looks and affect that they could only be fiction.

In HBO’s Girls, for example, Lacy was Fran, the kindly schoolteacher who still offered Hannah a ride after she dumped him hundreds of miles from home. In the 2020 remake of High Fidelity, he played a harmless rock-climbing fanatic – the guy you date when you’re on the rebound from heartache.

Lacy thinks the nicest guy he ever played – I asked – was probably Ken from the film How to Be Single, a goofy one-night stand who coasts into unexpected fatherhood with uncanny aplomb. “But that’s a caricature almost,” Lacy says. “The idea of a nice guy.”

That said, the actor is incorrect. The nicest guy he ever played is Max, who in another one-night stand plot from the 2014 romcom Obvious Child, supports his partner’s decision to get an abortion. He also warms her butter packet between his hands at a restaurant – a gesture so indelible it will surely unseat “You complete me” as cinema’s most romantic moment. (Just ask any woman born in the mid-Eighties.)

But after a decade spent radiating celluloid sweetness, Lacy went and played The White Lotus’s Shane, a real estate bro so entitled that the world seemed to pause so we could relish hating him together, in real time. In Mike White’s vicious lampoon, Lacy played a man so obsessed with getting what he paid for – the modestly superior Pineapple Suite! – that he ruins his honeymoon by harassing the resort manager to get it. Now, Lacy is the guy people shout at when they see him. “‘Oh man, we hated you’,” he quotes back to me, laughing over a heated interaction with a fan. “‘You were so terrible… but that’s a compliment.’”

Besides, Lacy insists that how a character might be perceived has never been a guiding principle for him. Instead, he explains over a video call from his Connecticut home, he looks at new roles holistically: Do I want to do this work? Do I want to be a part of this story? He clarifies, “More than asking, ‘Will people see me in a different way?’ It’s like, ‘Well, that’s their problem, and not mine.’”

Jake Lacy in ‘A Friend of the Family’ (Peacock)
Jake Lacy in ‘A Friend of the Family’ (Peacock)

It’s a question he’s been compelled to ask himself again more recently. On Peacock’s disturbing true-crime series A Friend of the Family, Lacy plays Robert Berchtold, the charismatic Idaho man who groomed and abducted his neighbour’s young daughter twice over the course of a few years. Berchtold forced Jan Broberg into underage marriage in Mexico and sexually assaulted her. It’s the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines nightmare that seems destined for a stomach-churning TV movie, but there are two compelling ways in which the series distinguishes itself from its trashier cousins.

The first is that Jan Broberg serves as an executive producer. Showrunner Nick Antosca, who also wrote the true-crime heart-grippers Candy and The Act, assured Lacy from the beginning that she would be, “and if she wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

We’re not trying to understand a paedophile

But it’s the second difference that will be more directly meaningful to viewers. The glut of true-crime offerings lately can feel like a race in the direction of more exploitative and more depraved retellings (Netflix’s Dahmer, about the serial killer’s troubled upbringing, and the multiple graphic restagings of a woman’s fatal fall in HBO’s The Staircase come to mind). But A Friend of the Family isn’t looking to depict Berchtold’s more detestable crimes or even explain why Berchtold – whom Broberg’s family affectionately called “B” – was inclined to commit them.

“We’re telling this story of a psychological drama of gaslighting and manipulation,” Lacy explains of the insidious ways Berchtold, who was a furniture salesman in his late thirties when he met the Brobergs, ingratiated himself with Jan’s entire family. Their kids were best friends. “But we’re not hiring a 19-year-old actress to then look 14, so that we can legally show abuse. I have zero interest in doing that.”

So the series allows B to operate on the story’s cold periphery, where the question of who he is never threatens to overtake the devastation of what he’s done. “We’re not trying to understand a paedophile,” Lacy says matter-of-factly. “We’re trying to understand the effect that this person has within a community. And I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to get to explore the thing that no one talks about.”

A Friend of the Family mostly situates the viewer alongside Jan’s maddeningly trusting parents, played by Colin Hanks and Anna Paquin. They don’t witness B’s criminal behaviour and are too naive to read much into the nefarious breadcrumbs he leaves behind. The viewer, of course, can’t help but see the threat. The moment that B delivers the line, “I am in the mood for a talent show” looking right at 12-year-old Jan, had me hiding behind my fingers faster than anything more explicit.

Jake Lacy and Murray Bartlett in ‘The White Lotus’ (HBO)
Jake Lacy and Murray Bartlett in ‘The White Lotus’ (HBO)

In The White Lotus, too, Lacy demonstrated this knack for conveying the complete world of a man in the space of a single line. For his Emmy-nominated turn as Shane Patton, the short remark was delivered breathlessly to the hotel’s manager, each word punctuated by gesticulating: “What I want is to speak to your boss.” We know that Shane’s been thinking the cringy cliche, but now that he’s finally expelled it, he can go back to living in harmony with himself. The customer is always right.

Lacy, for the record, says these days he relates more to the Mossbachers, the glamorously middle-aged couple, played by Steve Zahn and Connie Britton, who spend most of the series uncomfortable with their own wealth. “The compromising and the self-negotiating that goes on to be like: how do I both live selflessly, put my money where my mouth is in terms of equal rights, supporting government programmes, all these things, and then also live in a distinctly capitalist society and want as much money as I can get and nice things?"

Lacy grew up with “sweet, supportive” parents in rural Vermont, over two hours’ drive from the nearest place a New Yorker might call a city. But he moved to Brooklyn straight out of university in North Carolina; he worked odd jobs – receptionist, bar work – while hustling for auditions. He only quit the city recently. Like many a New York dad, Lacy and his family moved to the Connecticut suburbs during the pandemic in search of a garden his sons could safely drive their Power Wheels through.

Jake Lacy in ‘Girls’ (HBO)
Jake Lacy in ‘Girls’ (HBO)

As his eldest son approaches kindergarten age, he’s feeling iffy about whether or not they’ll stay put. “The culture is maybe not what we are used to being a part of coming from Brooklyn,” he explains, but the schools are fantastic. He could move to a different town, but then the schools are not that great. “And you go, ‘Am I going to send them to private school? Am I going to do that?’”

Like Shane’s fixation with the nicer hotel room, this is an existential crisis of money’s own making. “Am I fully living in Connecticut with kids in a private school?” Lacy says, his tone dripping with how-did-I-get-here self-awareness that wouldn’t be out of place on White’s scathing miniseries. “Who have I become?” When The White Lotus came out, most viewers insisted they knew someone just like Shane or even the Mossbachers. No, no, no, no, no, says Lacy. “The whole point is we are those people. You’re not quite getting the whole story there if your takeaway is like, ‘I’ve seen folks like that.’”

Jake Lacy in ‘High Fidelity’ (Hulu)
Jake Lacy in ‘High Fidelity’ (Hulu)

Sadly, when The White Lotus returns for season two, most of the cast – including Lacy – will not. But from the nice guy to the guy we loved to hate to the guy lurking in the shadows, Lacy has only scratched the surface of what interests him. He’d love to do an action film or a period drama. Personally, I’d like to know when Jake Lacy gets to be the hot guy the lead is pining after and not the hot guy she dumps. Despite his success, though, Lacy says his trajectory is shaped by Hollywood’s whims. “I’ve never really been in a position career-wise to go like, let’s look for a comedy, you know what I mean? I get these auditions and if I’m lucky, I get some offers.”

Mostly, what Lacy would like most is to shoot in New York, where he can be close to his kids and family. “That would be nice,” he says, sounding very much like the good guy you used to remember him as. “To be home for a minute.”

‘A Friend of the Family’ is available on Peacock in the US on 6 October and on Peacock via Sky and NOW in the UK on 7 October