For many actors, sex scenes can be fraught with embarrassment, uncertainty, and the downright unwanted, but intimacy director Ita O’Brien wants to change that. Before industry harassment scandals took hold of headlines everywhere, O’Brien had developed a way of empowering actors and directors to safely choreograph scenes involving nudity and simulated copulation on stage and screen; in the wake of Weinstein, she’s been in high demand. O’Brien and her agents, Samantha Dodd and Chris Carey, researched what often goes wrong in on-set sex scenes and are now campaigning with a set of guidelines that inform and protect actors. We caught up with them to discover how it works and what actors need to know to work well and stay safe.
Where did the idea for intimacy directing start?
O’Brien: I devised a play about abuse and wanted to create a way of keeping actors safe whilst exploring the subject matter; to start the day in a grounded, open place and to serve the work. Afterwards, a colleague at drama school mentioned that a lot of plays their students performed had sexual content that wasn’t being served well. Young actors had no idea how to approach intimacy. She asked me to start teaching the method in early 2015 and it’s developed from there.
What’s wrong with how sex scenes have traditionally been approached?
Dodd: People assumed that actors and everyone else on set or in rehearsals knew what they were doing. In the last few decades, sex scenes have become more common and explicit in drama, but nothing has been put in place to support actors; that’s why we hear of producers and directors sometimes naively putting actors in uncomfortable situations. Actors have felt unable to speak up because they fear being labelled as “difficult”. It became a self-perpetuating problem. Weinstein was a catalysing event that made people listen to these ideas, and the support we’ve got from the industry has been incredible.
Carey: Actors need to safeguard themselves and be comfortable, producers need to protect themselves from legal issues and we all need to serve the writers and directors creatively. The final result should be something made responsibly that audiences can really connect with, but that’s not always the case.
O’Brien: Directors weren’t trained to choreograph sex scenes. If you had a fight scene or a waltz, they’d know to pull in a fight director or choreographer. But people are embarrassed or unsure about how to deal with sex scenes. We should look at intimacy as you would any other part of the script. One of the examples I use is a big-budget TV series, which was beautifully filmed. There was a sex scene which everyone felt uncomfortable about. They shot it in one take and when it was over the two actors left the set and went to the tea caddy. One of the actors said it was as if it had never happened. As soon as you hear that statement you know there was a sense of shame. Doing it in one shot meant that there was no opportunity for the director to get a close shot, a wide shot, and a mid-shot, and that’s what you want with a sex scene, to be able to do get alternative shots and find the best version of it. These guidelines allow you to do that. To understand the characters, their relationship, to make sure the story and the passion are served. You get a far better sex scene for it.
How does the method work?
O’Brien: We approach the physical and the emotional journey of the scene separately. Actors agree where they want to be touched and we choreograph and repeat the physical journey so that it’s in their body memory. Then we look at the emotional content for the powerplay, passion, and lust. It’s a release. Actors feel comfortable serving the character journey if they know they’re safe, that everything happening with their scene partner is agreed and consented to. The actor’s personal and private intimate expression is kept out of the space so that they are allowed to do their job. All together this makes something which is more exciting, natural, and believable.
How does this work for improvisation?
O’Brien: Improvise without touching. You can have powerplay and passion, the director can stop the scene and agree that there’s a kiss or a hold. You’re still doing the job of exploring the dynamic of the characters in the scene but it keeps people safe.
What are the common problems actors come across?
Dodd: Mostly it’s actors being asked to do more than they’d realised. Also, there have been situations involving supporting artists where there weren’t checks in place. For instance, a scene in a brothel where actors were brought in and expected to get on with it without everyone understanding the rules of the situation. There have been cases where people have been touched inappropriately or made to feel uncomfortable.
Carey: We put out a call with the PMA asking for actors to offer confidential, anecdotal evidence about this and the responses were overwhelming. Saddest of all was that the guidelines, had they been in place, would have stopped these incidents. That’s why we’d like them to be adopted as best practice across the industry [as a] standard.
How can your guidelines be applied?
Carey: Our guidelines are about the scene itself. There are fantastic guidelines coming out for the industry that are about protecting actors but what we are doing is looking at sculpting the scene and having awareness around it.
O’Brien: They sit within the codes of conduct such as those from the Royal Court that demand everyone is treated with respect. The guidelines ensure there’s no ambiguity, instead, it’s known how to responsibly approach a sex scene or nudity.
Carey: We want it to be part of everybody’s toolkit. The guidelines start at the point where the producer reads the script, identifies there’s a sex scene, and lets all the relevant departments know what’s happening.
Dodd: That’s important because there have been cases of the wardrobe department not knowing and actors being left without dressing gowns!
What’s your top tip for actors?
O’Brien: If you’re up for Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” then find out the director’s vision for the sexual content and how it’s going to be handled. Raising the issue before you accept the job means that intimacy becomes just another thing you talk about as a professional. If they want a full-on, raunchy scene and you’re not comfortable with that then it’s not the job for you. If you do accept, keep the dialogue going. Know what’s going to be explored and when. Make sure you’re clear about what’s being asked of you. It’s your responsibility, too.
Watch and share O’Brien, Dodd, and Carey’s video about sex scenes on set below.