Catching Feelings: How to Navigate Love Scenes When You’re In a Relationship

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Photo Source: “Fair Play” Courtesy Netflix

Scandalous affairs that take place during filming may feel commonplace in the industry—Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, here’s looking at you—but many actors are adept at separating their characters’ romantic feelings from their own. Still, even the most happily committed actors and their partners can feel uneasy at the idea of one of them portraying intimacy. Let’s explore the ways that love scenes can impact relationships, and the steps you can take to protect your own.

The blurred lines of romantic roles

All good acting entails understanding a character’s motivations and becoming immersed in their history, personality, and beliefs; however, romantic roles require a level of emotional depth that can feel real. When actors pretend to fall in love, “they are putting their bodies and words into positions and interactions that are fictional, but their bodies and actions mimic reality,” psychology professor Thalia Goldstein explained. “So it may be that actors are reading fictional behaviors as real and therefore following suit with their emotions.”

“They give themselves over to the character, immersing themselves in the feelings of the character,” added psychologist Glenn Wilson. “The more they can make it real, the more convincing that performance will be. Often there is a kind of chemistry that comes out of that that would be hard to replicate by a more technical approach to acting.”

These nebulous boundaries can make actors, their romantic partners, their scene partners, and their scene partners’ romantic partners uneasy—but taking the following steps can help.

How to set boundaries for intimate scenes

1. Balance professionalism with authenticity. 

Taking on love scenes necessitates a delicate balance of technical competence and vulnerability. Whether you’re portraying a tender kiss like Westley (Cary Elwes) and Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) in “The Princess Bride”; a (literally) steamy sexual encounter like Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) in “Titanic”; or even a violent assault, like Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) in “Fair Play,” charged intimate scenes challenge you to express profound emotional depth while still upholding boundaries. 

2. Understand the stakes. 

Grasp the deeper narrative context behind an intimate moment to imbue it with emotional truth. Exploring your character’s motivations and the subtext of their romantic arc can help you separate a scene’s intensity from your personal feelings. 

3. Establish shared expectations with your scene partner. 

Have an open discussion well before rehearsals with your scene partner about your respective emotional and physical boundaries. Work together with an intimacy coordinator to create a clear plan for approaching love scenes. 

“When I’m working 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,” said intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis (“Insecure,” “We Own This City”). 

Once you’ve set expectations, show respect to yourself and your partner by abiding by them. “I usually support actors in coming up with essentially a menu of, like, kinds of touch. And then anything that’s not on the menu is not on the table; we’re not going there,” says intimacy coordinator Mia Schachter (“Blindspotting”). 

4. Discuss boundaries with your romantic partner.

Aim for full transparency about intimate scenes and any doubts, insecurities, and lingering feelings you may have. “I recommend having a calm, rational, and above all collaborative conversation,” advised actor Michael Kostroff (“The Wire,” “The Plot Against America”).

You may find that you and your partner have different levels of comfort with physical intimacy. See if you can find a compromise that allows you to grow in your career without threatening your relationship. For instance, actor Boris Kodjoe (“Station 19,” “Addicted”) told ET that he and his wife, actor Nicole Ari Parker (“Empire,” “And Just Like That…”), “have certain rules” when it comes to filming intimate scenes. “There's the ‘No Tongue’ rule,” he explained, “and then there's the ‘No Nipple in the Mouth’ rule.” Your own rules could be anything from a no kissing policy all the way to accepting full simulated sex scenes; it’s all about what feels right for you and your relationship.

5. Keep things light when possible. 

Knowing that you or your partner are simulating romance and intimacy with another person can feel awkward at best—but relationship experts say that incorporating humor can help you reframe the issue, approach it with levity, and defuse conflict. Just be sure that you’re both in on the joke and that you’re not using humor as a shield to avoid other feelings.

After filming a kissing scene with Kerry Washington (“Django Unchained,” “Little Fires Everywhere”) on “Scandal,” for instance, Scott Foley (“The Unit,” “Whiskey Cavalier”) held a viewing party with his wife, actor Marika Domińczyk (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Inventing Anna”). “After the love scene, it was sort of quiet because no one knew how Marika was gonna act,” he said on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” “And she broke the silence and said, ‘Why don’t you bring some of that home?!’” 

When Rebecca Metz (“Better Things,” “Shameless”) shot a “bad sex” scene on “Maron,” she watched it with her non-actor husband. “[H]e laughed and put his arm around me and told me it was great,” she wrote. “It wasn’t much different than watching any other role together. He knows it’s often hard for me to watch my own work, I always feel self-conscious and see things I wish I’d done differently. So whatever else he might have felt, all he told me was that I was great and he was proud of me.”

6. Work with a counselor. 

Therapy sessions provide a safe space to discuss feelings under the guidance of a professional trained to help you succeed both personally and professionally. Speaking with a counselor can help you and your partner identify and take responsibility for your feelings, find ways to reassure one another, and reflect on the best ways to move forward as a team, explains clinical psychologist Alexandra Solomon. “Make a conscious effort to offer reassurance and accountability to your partner, because trust is bedrock,” Solomon writes. “You want your partner to feel safe with you and experience your own security as well.”

7. Prioritize your relationship. 

Continue investing in your own relationship to build a foundation of trust and support. It can help to think of onscreen and onstage romances as creative opportunities rather than considering them as real. 

Kostroff feels that actors should prioritize their personal relationships over their career. “Talk over the pros and cons, including the career limitations of a ‘no kissing’ policy and whether love scenes pose any threat to your relationship,” he concluded. “If you decide to put your foot down, make sure it’s for the role of a lifetime.”