How Actors Film Realistic Sex Scenes: Preproduction to Rehearsal to Set

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Photo Source: “Insecure” Courtesy Merie W. Wallace/HBO

There are a lot of stressors and questions that can arise for an actor when faced with the prospect of filming a sex scene. This can involve performing intimacy with a co-star, setting boundaries with your director, and revealing yourself (often in more ways than one) to an audience. Thankfully, there are more guardrails and industry standards in place today than in the past, all of which exist to protect actors. 

For example, SAG-AFTRA prohibits performing actual sex acts—categorized as “genital contact without a physical barrier.” So, generally, actors are not actually having intercourse on set. Almost any hot-and-heavy scene you’ve watched on the big or small screen has been simulated sex. 

Increasingly, intimacy coordinators are shaping the way sex scenes are performed, both physically and emotionally. Every intimate action shared with an onscreen partner—from kissing to simulated foreplay and sex—should be discussed between talent and director; the intimacy coordinator helps ensure that this agreement stays in place.

Here’s everything you need to know about shooting intimate scenes, including consent, what to expect when choreographing a kiss, modesty garments, and what to do if you become aroused.

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Preproduction

Bridgerton“Bridgerton” Courtesy Liam Daniel/Netflix

The contents and expectations of any sex scene in film or on TV should be dictated by contracts, negotiations, and open communication around choreography and consent. Today, intimacy coordinators supervise many of these protocols on a set. They, alongside the director or showrunner, decide who will be present on the shoot day (often intimate scenes require a “closed set” of only necessary talent and crew); what the crew should expect to see and film; and how the wardrobe, makeup, and props teams will work with actors to add details, such as fake sweat.

Producers, directors, and intimacy coordinators should know the contents of each performer’s nudity or simulated-sex rider, which contractually specifies what is and isn’t acceptable. An actor can also request the script pages for any intimate or nude scenes to be attached to their rider. 

“With actors, I make sure I read exactly what it is in their nudity or simulated-sex rider so that there are no surprises. I ask them if they’ve had experiences doing intimacy on set before and what they need,” says intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis (“Insecure,” “We Own This City”). 

Actors can trust that the intimacy coordinator has met with the director or showrunner ahead of time to identify and address the script’s intimate moments and to establish each scene’s arc, tone, and end goal. 

“There are times in the [script] where it just says, ‘They undress and begin having sex,’ and that’s the line,” said Rodis. “There are so many nuances as far as: What exactly is the story we’re telling? What kind of sex is this? What are we showing, and what do we know the actors are OK with?” If the job does not have an intimacy coordinator, you should feel empowered to ask the director of the scene these same questions. 

Before staging a scene, intimacy coordinators often meet one-on-one with actors. These conversations are confidential and allow intimacy coordinators to account for different comfort levels when choreographing a scene without having to call out any single player. As an actor, you should feel safe about articulating your boundaries without the fear of being labeled “difficult.”

What happens during a rehearsal for a sex scene?

Scene from 'Uncut Gems'“Uncut Gems” Courtesy A24

Intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, who developed “Intimacy on Set Guidelines,” follows a regimented process for creating sex scenes. She begins with a warmup to center and ground the performers. Then, she and the actors identify the goal and beats of the scene, each character’s emotional journey, and the power dynamics of the interaction. (Even if there isn’t an intimacy coordinator on a project, this is still a useful protocol to follow.)

Together, the actors, intimacy coordinator, and the director agree on acceptable touching areas. Next, they sculpt the physical scene using words (e.g., “I’ll put my right hand on the back of your neck and pull so our torsos touch.” “OK, and then I’ll take my left hand and place it under your right thigh and lift it up.”) Then, they walk through that blocking step-by-step. After choreographing the movement, the intimacy coordinator reviews the emotional journey with the actors before combining the physical and emotional into one fluid execution. 

This might not sound sexy, but choreographing a sex scene in advance frees up actors to focus on their emotional performances—which typically leads to a steamier read on camera. 

The degree to which a scene is choreographed versus improvised has changed in recent years. In the past, directors often let their actors figure it out and “just do it” on shoot day. 

“The inference is that we’re human beings, and we sleep, we eat, and we have sex, so everybody knows how to have sex. So why do we need a specialist—a practitioner—to teach us how to do intimate content?” O’Brien says. “What is completely overlooked is, first off, people are embarrassed to talk openly, professionally, and in detail about intimate content.”

Nowadays, even on sets without intimacy coordinators—and particularly as the industry has shifted in the wake of the #MeToo movement—teams dedicate much more time and attention to comfort and planned choreography. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan did not have an intimacy coordinator for Francis Lee’s “Ammonite,” but when they reflect on filming their sex scenes, the in-depth process of dramaturgy and rehearsal that then led to comfort with the intimate choreography is apparent. 

Improvisation—within established touch zones—is more often used as a devising tool in rehearsal before filming. In fact, an actor can specifically stipulate whether or not they’re willing to allow improv during the filming of sex scenes in their SAG-AFTRA nudity rider or a nonunion contract.

How exactly do actors film sex scenes?

Nude scene from 'Game of Thrones'“Game of Thrones” Courtesy HBO

Shooting intimate scenes can take anywhere from three to five hours for a TV episode or short film to more than a full day for a feature. Directors will likely want to capture a close-up shot, a wide shot, and a midshot in order to edit together the best version of the scene in post. All the work up to this point is designed precisely so that actors feel safe when repeating scene work.

Modesty garments

Coverings or full-body makeup can shield certain body parts from the camera and prevent genital-on-genital contact, which is strictly prohibited on union sets. Shibues and hibues—strapless thongs—are one popular form of modesty patch. They adhere to the body and give the illusion of nudity without actually revealing an actor’s genitals. 

Rodis says she keeps these garments in a variety of hues in her set kit. “We take a shibue, open it up, and put a silicone guard underneath so everyone becomes like a Barbie doll,” she says. 

Baby oil easily removes these stick-ons. People with male genitalia might opt to wear a “sock” instead—a drawstring skin-colored pouch that holds the penis and testicles. People with breasts can opt to wear pasties over their nipples. Sometimes, actors wear elbow or kneepads for practicality and comfort—especially when filming for hours a day—but only when the blocking means that these pads are out of shot. Props like pillows, yoga mats, and stress balls can also be placed between actors, or prosthetics can also be used. 

What if actors get aroused during sex scenes?

While all of these procedures are in place to mimic the physicality and emotion of sex, biological realities mean that an actor may still become aroused while filming. Intimacy coordinator David Thackeray says that it’s normal for this to occur when performers are simulating sex—and when this happens, for the team to simply stop shooting. 

“The worst thing you can do is carry on,” he says. “We call that a ‘timeout.’ Give them five minutes. Then I come in and check in. Then we come back into it when they’re ready.” 

A timeout is crucial for when an actor gets aroused, a modesty garment is out of place, a movement diverges from the choreography, or anyone feels uncomfortable or unsafe. 

Safety during sex scenes

If you as an actor become uncomfortable at any point during filming, you can absolutely call for the shoot to stop. “There’s a clause in your SAG-AFTRA contract stipulating that you have the right to say no to a scene while you’re in the middle of shooting, even if you’ve agreed to it and have signed a nudity rider,” says intimacy coordinator and casting director Marci Liroff

If you are nonunion, you can include a clause in your contract modeled after this stipulation. Regardless, you should never do anything you don’t want to do. If there is an intimacy coordinator on set, ask for a timeout and speak with them; otherwise, speak to your director. Adjustments can always be made. That can mean reaching a compromise in order to continue shooting or shifting the production to employ a double for you. 

“The double can only do what’s in your nudity rider, and the production can use takes you’ve already shot,” Liroff says.

Nudity, sex scenes, and other forms of filmed intimacy can be part of the job of an actor. Knowing what you’re getting into and what you have a right to ask for before you agree to a contract that requires physical intimacy can help you feel safer as a professional in the workplace.