What is an intimacy coordinator? Meet the woman who protects actors doing sex scenes in the #MeToo era
Ita O’Brien, the UK’s leading intimacy coordinator, has worked with Netflix, BBC1, Channel 4 and many more to ensure sex scenes on set are done safely
It's common practice for productions to recruit a specialist coordinator to choreograph fight and dance sequences – so why aren’t sex scenes given the same treatment?
This is the question being posed by the UK’s leading intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, whose job is to protect actors and crew when filming scenes of a sexual nature. She has worked on Channel 4’s Humans and Electric Dreams, the film The Girl with All the Gifts, and Netflix’s forthcoming series Sex Education starring Gillian Anderson, to name a few.
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In the post-Weinstein era, O’Brien’s role has become more relevant than ever, with productions realising that a sex-scene gone wrong can result in real injury, just as a botched fight or dance sequence can.
“This has been able to happen post-#MeToo because the injury has been emotional and psychological,” says O’Brien. “Anyone might have spoken about it before but it wasn't given the time of day. It wasn't given credence until Weinstein happened and women were saying, ‘I've been mistreated and I have trauma from this.’ And finally people are saying, ‘Okay, we understand, we're taking notice and we're listening.’”
But what does an intimacy co-ordinator actually do? O'Brien lays it out in detail below but her key roles include choreographing sex scenes step by step, ensuring consent is agreed between actors, making sure sexual movements are described in professional language on set, preventing sex scenes from being observed by unnecessarily large crews and even making sure the right kind of genital coverings are used.
And the industry is taking note. Just last month, HBO announced a pioneering new policy ensuring that all of its shows and films that feature sex scenes will have an intimacy coordinator on staff.
O’Brien, meanwhile, is currently touring her Intimacy on Set guidelines in Australia. Her mission is for the industry to adopt her guidelines across the board. “The intention is to make the industry a safer place but also make sex scenes better, because it gives you a better sex scene – it can be more sexy, more raunchy, more sensual when it's choreographed,” she says.
Read on to find out why intimacy coordination is so important – and what exactly the job entails…
Why do we need intimacy coordinators?
There are many examples of damaging experiences during sex scenes that could have been prevented if an intimacy coordinator had been on set. The one that O’Brien highlights is the case of Maria Schneider in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film Last Tango in Paris.
In a 2013 interview, Bertolucci confirmed that an infamous scene in the movie, in which Marlon Brando’s character anally rapes Schneider’s, was largely improvised. He said he had been "in a way horrible to Maria because I didn't tell her what was going on, because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress".
Six years earlier in a 2007 interview, Schneider had said the scene in question "wasn't in the original script" and that “even though what Marlon was doing wasn't real, I was crying real tears".
“If I was there as an intimacy coordinator,” says O’Brien, “I'd get the actor and director to talk to me about what they wanted from the scene and make sure that for all parties there's clear transparency, clarity and understanding about what's being asked and then talk about the shape of the scene and the physicality that's wanted.”
O’Brien also explains that many actors have admitted to her that they have gotten drunk before sex scenes to calm their nerves. “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.
“But part of the guidelines and what I'm advocating is that you need to be ultra-present, ultra-clear and open and in command of yourself in order to give agreement and consent. 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.”
Another common problem is student actors being taken advantage of by directors at university. “Their director has cast himself in a part and said, ‘We're going to rehearse this sex scene now,’ and he's in a room with this actress and using it as an opportunity to assault her,” says O’Brien.
What’s the general rule for kissing with tongues?
As it stands, there are no established guidelines for intimacy scenes, but here, O’Brien outlines the rule she would suggest. “The basic guideline is that your personal body should not be penetrated and there shouldn't be an exchange of fluids. So absolutely no tongues,” she says.
“For example, with my guidelines, when you come to agreeing touch, if there is a kiss, I get them just to peck so they explore that place, but it's just a peck. Then you're looking at how you kiss and how long for and who kisses whom when you do the emotional journey. But it should be no tongues. But there are situations when it's really intimate and a director wants it – if both actors are happy and everybody's agreeing, you can go for it.”
Sex scenes should also be closely choreographed, says O'Brien. For example when simulating intercourse, actors might mimic the step by step of how dance or fight choreography would work with steps such as “push head down”, “undo buckle” and “thrust three times”.
How do genital coverings work?
“Gents wear a genitalia covering which is colloquially called a cock sock,” says O’Brien. “Ladies wear a gusset covering. It's called a merkin if it's been wigged [to imitate pubic hair]. If you can work it with the camera angles, you can wear a flesh-coloured G string, or a mixture of all of them – and also use cushions in between.”
Cushions are useful when coverings aren’t thick enough to fully protect the actor. “There was one scene I’ve coordinated where there was a moment of cunnilingus and it's not suitable for someone's face to be up against someone's genitalia,” says O’Brien, “So I asked wardrobe to make a cushion out of stuffing flesh-coloured pants with lambswool and sewing it up – and it worked really well.”
In between takes, O’Brien makes sure that the actors aren’t unnecessarily nude. “The nakedness is from action to cut and at all other times you should be covered,” she explains.
“The guideline is keeping you personally safe and taking care of your personal body so that you can then be professionally, artistically vulnerable. And then that sense that the character is action to cut and outside of that you're in your personal body. It's that separation. Making sure the character is naked, but never you."
It also works the other way round, O'Brien explains, describing a situation where there was a naked actor who was filming in boiling conditions and didn't want to put a covering on, but that meant the crew were being confronted by his nakedness, "which is equally not right".
“An intimacy coordinator's job isn't just about taking care of the actor," she says. "it's about taking care of the whole production, which includes crew.”
What about vocabulary? What is and isn’t it okay to say on set?
One element of the job is getting the red editing pen out when reading a script that includes intimacy directions written in an unprofessional way.
“Part of the professionalism is talking about intimacy in an adult and actual way, using proper and anatomical names like ‘breasts’ and ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ rather than ‘boobs’ and ‘one-eyed trouser snake’ and ‘fur burger’,” says O’Brien. “It makes a big difference, it's respectful language.”
Even if actors have consented to a scene before it starts – do they have a safe word on set?
“I was talking to some of the actors here in Perth and they were saying that ‘pineapple’ is a safe word,” reveals O’Brien. “So it's about agreeing and putting in place a process to be able to halt the action if anything needs to stop. You can be in agreement and consent about how the scene is, but perhaps it's a rape scene, you've agreed to it all, it's all been fine, but actually you suddenly get overwhelmed with the subject matter in the moment and you just think, ‘Actually, I need to stop,’ so you agree a time out.”
Instead of a particular safe word, a traffic light system can also be used, as O’Brien explains: “Green: everything's fine, amber: I'm a bit shaky, red: stop.”
O’Brien says these time-out devices can also be used when actors get erections on set, something “which is not suitable but is natural and normal and therefore needs to be spoken about”.
“If you're doing intercourse,” she says, “you’re acting out the man thrusting, coming through to orgasm, bodies move against each other so a man might begin to get an erection. It's natural, it's normal but it's not suitable to be in your work place with an erection. So that's absolutely another time where you'd be saying ‘pineapple’ or ‘red light’ or ‘time out’. ‘I need to stop here, need to go and splash some water.’”
Should there be a skeleton crew on set during sex scenes?
Yes, the size of the crew should be reduced to key members only – and their gender is important too.
To avoid voyeurism, for example a woman doing a sexual scene being unnecessarily observed by a large group of men, an intimacy coordinator controls the gender of the crew. “When I was working as a movement director on Electric Dreams: Impossible Planet there was a moment of alien porn,” says O’Brien. “And they had one lady acting out the alien sexual movement and straight away I was saying, ‘You need to think about the gender parity that's present on the crew.’ They instantly went about arranging that, so all of the crew around that actor at that time was female.”
In what ways does an intimacy coordinator offer advice and support?
O’Brien ensures that actors and crew can come to her for emotional support before, during and after filming.
“Part of my work as an intimacy coordinator is that I will check in with the actors before they come to set,” explains O’Brien. “I'll check out what the content is, what the concerns are and do the risk assessment. Then at the end of the day I’m encouraging them to do a warm down or put in practices where they can really let go of the character.
“A couple of days later I will check in with them to make sure that they’re comfortable with what happened on set, making sure it's book-ended.”