Actors used to turn to alcohol to numb nerves before filming explicit shots. Now Tinseltown has ‘intimacy co-ordinators’, writes
When the hit TV series Game of Thrones arrived on our screens in 2011 it was with a thunderclap of bared bums and wobbly private parts. Inevitably most of those private parts belonged to women — typically younger actresses appearing in their first major television series.
Nobody seemed particularly troubled at the time by the coast-to-coast gratuitousness. The general feeling was Game of Thrones should be congratulated for going where other swords and sorcery romps had dared not venture.
Eight years on, by contrast, it is unthinkable the opening episode of a major new drama could conclude, as Game of Thrones did, with a teenage bride being raped by her new husband. Post-Harvey Weinstein, in this #MeToo era, it would properly raise an outcry.
The conversation around sex and television has changed hugely in the interim, especially since the unmasking of movie producer Weinstein as a serial predator. #MeToo has forced the entertainment industry to dismantle and interrogate its attitudes towards sex.
Indeed, as #MeToo has lifted the rock on the murky side of Hollywood, one of the nasty truths that slithered out is that explicit scenes were in the past often an ordeal for the participants. Adèle Exarchopoulos, a star of hyper-explicit 2013 LGBT romantic drama Blue is the Warmest Colour, recalled shutting herself off and wishing she was elsewhere at the Cannes premiere.
“All of our families were there in the theatre, so during the sex scenes I’d close my eyes. [Abdellatif Kechiche, the director] told me to imagine it’s not me, but it’s me, so I’d close my eyes and imagined I was on an island far away, but I couldn’t help but listen, so I didn’t succeed in escaping. The scene is a little too long.”
Then there is the notorious sexual assault sequence in Bernado Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, where 19 year-old actress Maria Schneider was not informed in advance of the ordeal her character was about to suffer. “I didn’t tell her what was going on,” Bertolucci would say.
“I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress.”
Schneider had a different perspective. She had recalled breaking down as Marlon Brando was filmed violating her. “Even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, “ she recalled. “I was crying real tears”
In a poetic reversal HBO, the studio behind Game of Thrones, is to the fore of a new forward-thinking outlook that has swept in with #MeToo.
It is the first television network to insist on an “intimacy co-ordinator” on all its shows. Their job is ensure a performer is comfortable with a sex scene and has not been asked to do something beyond their comfort zone.
Intimacy coordinators also help with practicalities, such as limiting the number of crew on set during a sensitive sequence and taking care the actors are covered up between filming, so that they are not made to feel either physically or emotionally exposed.
This, many in the industry will agree, was a long time overdue. Actresses, especially, have historically been forced into things with which they were very uncomfortable. To cope with the terror and the shame there were even cases of cast arriving for the scene under the influence — to numb the pain.
“People are really nervous, historically, and the amount of times actors say they get a script, they read it through and they see the sex scene and their heart drops, particularly with rape, So in order to cope with it they drink and get themselves in a state,” British intimacy co-ordinator Ita O’Brien told the Radio Times last year.
“You can’t agree and consent if you’re not really in charge of yourself. So the irony is they put themselves into even more of a vulnerable situation and stuff can happen to them that they’re not comfortable with.”
“A lot of actors and directors would talk about having had bad experiences,” says Sue Mythen, head of movement at the Lir Academy at Trinity College, Dublin.
The way politics has moved in the last number of years, that is now listened to.
Mythen worked on the stage adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It, which premiered at the Everyman Theatre in Cork last year. Part of her remit was helping the young cast work through intimate sequences.
“Directors might [in the past] have shied away from being quite direct or quite technical about those scenes and maybe expected actors to work it out themselves,” she says. “That leaves everyone open to ambiguity ... To be put into that position without guidance can be inhibiting. Often it has led in the past to inappropriate behaviour — of one actor misinterpreting signals.”
“It might have been [in the past] that a director might ask actors to improvise. ‘Just do the kiss’ or ‘this is where the kiss happens’. Or they talk about it — ‘this is the embrace,the kiss, this is where they move to the bed’. It would be talked about in a conceptual way.
“The concept doesn’t help the actor. What helps the actor is a practical, step by step approach — working out the specificity of the actions, the feelings and the thoughts that need to happen in the scene. By working out those steps and stages in a very practical way, it means the actor is free within those parameters to act. Rather than worry about the signals or worrying what to do next.”
“Even I didn’t understand the scope of just how much this had been ignored, and for how long,” HBO intimacy co-ordinator Alicia Rodis told Rolling Stone last year. “There is such a power dynamic on sets, so much pressure and this sense that [as an actor] you just suck it up and do it.”
Where HBO has gone others have followed. As the title implied, Netflix’s recent high school drama Sex Education required its young cast to appear in compromising positions. As safeguard Ita O’Brien was on hand as intimacy co-ordinator through the shoot.
O’Brien believes difficult situations sometimes arise out of naivety rather than malice, as she told the Guardian recently.
“They [the director] don’t know how to talk openly, they have no idea how to organise someone — physically — to get what they want,” she says.
Actors are frequently left to their own devices, and an actor without a director moves a simulated sex scene out of the professional realm and into the personal – which makes them vulnerable.
“There was stuff I was scared and nervous to do,” Aimee Lou Wood, who plays “popular” girl Aimee Gibbs in Sex Education, told the Irish Examiner when promoting the series.
“You sit with the script for a while. There are loads of conversations about it— loads.
“It’s the most liberating thing once you’ve done it. It’s all done with such care. Closed sets, an intimacy director. You are so taken care of. Those bits are the most fun and the most liberating.”