The women behind Britain’s steamiest sex scenes: Wonder why TV is so X-rated? Blame it on the new intimacy coaches who are teaching romping actors how to say yes, yes, yes!
- Britain has 20 registered intimacy coordinators – all but three of them are female
- They choreograph sex scenes so actors know where body parts are going to be
- Coordinator ensures there is no contact between sex organs for the actors
- Inside their kit includes nipple daisies, strapless thongs and a pubic wig
From bodice ripper Bridgerton to gay drama It’s A Sin — steamy love scenes have had as much air time as Boris and his boffins this past year.
And far from being titillating asides, shoe-horned in to keep the attention of a generation with worryingly easy access to internet porn (as well as their Fifty Shades Of Grey-loving parents), sex scenes in drama are now considered both an art and a science, around which a whole new industry has sprung up.
Britain has 20 registered intimacy coordinators — all but three female — to thank for expertly choreographing such scenes as Daphne and Simon’s passionate encounter on the library stepladder in Bridgerton to the eye-opening ‘wham, bam, thank you mam’ collisions between staff at a London investment bank in BBC2 series Industry.
It is a tricky path they tread making these encounters plausible and pleasing to the eye as well as respecting the wishes, and understandable insecurities, of some actors performing a role that can be emotionally, as well as physically, exposing.
Ita O’Brien (pictured), 56, who previously worked as an actor and movement director, is an intimacy coordinator on Gentleman Jack, Sex Education, It’s A Sin and Normal People.
‘Choreographing a sex scene is very much like choreographing a dance,’ says Vanessa Coffey, one of the UK’s leading intimacy coordinators who worked with Billie Piper on last year’s Sky Atlantic series I Hate Suzie (now out on DVD) and the second part of the BBC’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds. Released later this year, it stars Daisy Edgar-Jones, one of the first actors to talk about her positive experience of working with an intimacy coordinator while shooting Normal People.
‘The actors need to know exactly where hands are going, where body parts are going to be, what’s going to be visible or not visible on camera,’ says Vanessa. ‘Many have areas, whether that’s nipples or their intergluteal cleft (bum crack, to you and me) that they’re not comfortable showing on screen, so we have to respect and accommodate that with careful camera angling.’
We’ve come a long way since Keira Knightley says she had a director holler at her: “W*** him off!” mid scene, while filming Atonement 15 years ago.
Elle McAlpine (pictured), one of Ita’s former students, has worked as an intimacy coordinator on including It’s A Sin and Roadkill
‘Of course she understood what that means, but it’s obviously only going to be simulated, so as an actor I wouldn’t know what I needed to do to demonstrate that to a viewing audience,’ says Vanessa. ‘That requires proper structuring.’
In the same interview on the Graham Norton show in which Keira recounted this experience she also revealed how she had been asked, by director David Cronenberg, over Skype to demonstrate her ‘sex faces’.
keira, who has said she won’t be appearing in any more sex scenes in films shot by male directors, then suffered the excruciating indignity of the screen freezing mid-expression.
Aussie Vanessa, who married a Brit and settled in Glasgow where she lectures in intimacy coordinating at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, is horrified that actors were still being subjected to such humiliating direction in the 21st century.
Elle McAlpine has choreographed sex scenes in shows such as The Great, featuring Elle Fanning (pictured) as Catherine
She is also aware that, in an industry which for so long ignored casting couch predators such as Harvey Weinstein, her role would not exist, were it not for the #MeToo movement.
The lawyer-turned-actor ‘fell into’ her role in 2017 after being asked by colleagues to cast a legal eye over contracts and even accompany some of them on set when they felt uncomfortable filming intimate scenes.
It turned out it wasn’t just the cast who appreciated Vanessa’s support, but also the crew.
Perhaps they viewed her presence as an insurance policy against accusations of impropriety at a time when so much wrongdoing in the industry was coming to light. They also appreciated her role as go-between, sparing them conversations about sexual positions and degrees of nakedness.
‘Initially we were seen as the fun police, a PC brigade trying to stop these sorts of scenes from happening,’ says Vanessa. ‘Nothing could be further from the truth and now everyone is seeing the effect of what we do and enjoying the results.
‘Directors are relieved that, far from intimacy coordinators interfering and detracting in any way from these scenes, it’s clear that, when an actor feels safe, knows exactly what is expected of them and that their wishes are being respected, they give their best performances. I’ve heard stories of actors being given no further direction than “just go for it” during a sex scene, something that would never happen with, say, a dance or a fight scene. Leaving it to an actor to do “whatever comes naturally” in bed, because everyone feels uncomfortable talking about the specifics, is bound to lead to feelings of vulnerability.
Vanessa Coffey, one of the UK’s leading intimacy coordinators, worked with Billie Piper on last year’s Sky Atlantic series I Hate Suzie (pictured)
‘It’s tantamount to saying: “Show us how you kiss or thrust,” when what is needed is for them to stay in character and let this scene, like all the others, be part of the storytelling.’
Another aspect of Vanessa’s role is to pay close attention to what is, and is not, anatomically possible in these scenes.
For instance, when sex is meant to be happening standing up, the woman must be in a more elevated position than the man, not something that would necessarily occur to the actors, or even directors, when they are merely playing at it.
An intimacy coordinator’s nine on set essentials
Nipple daisies — to cover an actor’s areola, ensuring only side breast is visible
Nipple daisies are used to cover an actor’s areola
Hibue/shibue — strapless thongs, in a range of skin tones, that stick to the pelvis and prevents genitalia from touching
Merkins — a pubic wig, often used in period dramas or to provide additional covering
Flesh-coloured underwear — these can be long enough to cover the thighs and, with the right colour, match remain invisible
Heat pads are used under robes to keep actors warm between takes
Small cushions stuffed with lambswool — to create a barrier between the actors’ genitalia during sex scenes
Mints — to freshen breath for kissing scenes, especially after one actor has taken a cigarette break
Glycerine and water spray — to create the illusion of beads of sweat during/after vigorous sex scenes
Heat pads — used under robes to keep actors warm between takes
Aloe Vera gel — soothes skin chafed or irritated by modesty garments
Mints are used to freshen an actor’s breath between takes
An intimacy coordinator also ensures there is no actual contact between the actors most intimate parts, with coverings for both and pillows discreetly placed between bodies. Only the parts of the body that need to be filmed are left exposed so, unbeknown to the viewer, an actress may be wearing jogging bottoms, or a camisole top, if only one half of her body is in a scene where she appears to be naked.
The moment the director says cut, nobody is allowed to move until the actors have been wrapped in dressing gowns. And to remove the risk of actors feeling ogled, Vanessa is one of only a handful of crew allowed to be present for these scenes.
‘We also make sure nobody else has access to monitors so the performers can really give it their all without thinking: “Oh gosh, is my driver watching this?” We always have a safe word — usually “pineapple” as it’s so unlikely to be part of any script — in case one of the actors needs a break.
‘That might be because of an erection. We recognise those things happen when people are thrusting and there’s a lot of friction and they may need a moment to step aside.’
Vanessa acknowledges that the more experienced an actor the less daunting these scenes are. Billie Piper is no stranger to performing simulated sex scenes with a string of leading roles under her belt, including that of high-class escort Belle de Jour in Secret Diary Of A Call Girl.
Consequently, she took a masturbation scene, as well as numerous sexual encounters, very much in her stride in I Hate Suzie.
While Vanessa helped with the scene, it was Billie’s less experienced co-stars who were more in need of her support. ‘Billie has done plenty of intimate scenes before so she’s very clear on what her boundaries are and what props and coverings she does and doesn’t need,’ says Vanessa.
‘So, we needed to make sure her male co-stars felt just as comfortable and knew where their hands would go and what was required of them.’
But it’s not just sex scenes that require input from an intimacy coordinator, as Vanessa found when she was hired to support the cast on Netflix teen drama, Fate: The Winx Saga. ‘There are partial nudity and kissing scenes and the crew wanted to make sure that the young cast felt safe and supported,’ says Vanessa.
‘I read that Kate Winslet had hopped into the boot of a car while her on-screen daughter was shooting a kissing scene. She felt that the actress needed some additional support.’
Kate also revealed she wishes she’d had an intimacy coordinator, saying: ‘I could have done with having that friend to say, “Can you just ask him not to put his hands there?” so it’s not you having to say it, which can be awkward.’ However, with many production companies still without intimacy coordinators, Vanessa says there’s still a way to go. ‘I was speaking with a director recently about a kissing scene,’ she says.
‘They hadn’t realised that one of the actors was using their tongue, which is a definite no-no — unless it’s somehow relevant and would then have to be agreed — until they mentioned it a few days later. That’s the sort of conversation I would have with the actors, rather than just assuming they know.
‘There was the buttoned-up director who referred to a “need to see the ladies’ parts” and I was like, “Which ladies’ parts — full breasts, nipples, something else?” We need to all be comfortable with this language and content.’
Gentleman Jack’s Suranne Jones (pictured with Sophie Rundle) is an ‘experienced and empowered’ actor but Ita gave greater support to her co-stars in the BBC drama
Ita O’Brien, 56, intimacy coordinator on Gentleman Jack, Sex Education, It’s A Sin and Normal People agrees. Ita established Intimacy on Set in 2018. Four practitioners who trained with her are fully accredited and 30 are under mentorship globally. She says: ‘There are three tenets of intimacy coordination — open communication and transparency; agreements of consent in relation to touch, sexual content and nudity; and choreography, recognising that this is a body dance that requires clear direction and instruction.’
Ita, who worked as an actor and movement director before her current role, adds: ‘In how many jobs are people expected to strip off and perform sex scenes in front of a whole load of other people? It would make most of us feel vulnerable.’
Like Billie Piper, Suranne Jones is an ‘experienced and empowered’ actor with a clear idea of her boundaries, so it was her co-stars in BBC drama Gentleman Jack who required greater support from Ita. ‘The first thing to remember is that these scenes are pretendWe have lots of modesty garments. The minimum they would wear are genitalia pouches — a hibue for him, a shibue for her — so even though an actor may look naked, in a simulated sex scene they never actually are.’
One actress Ita worked with was happy to be nude, but did not want her thighs to be visible, so she supplied flesh-coloured shorts. ‘I also have my ‘cunnilingus cushion’, which creates the right barrier, but if you have someone’s head down below another actor’s thighs with the correct camera angle it reads right,’ says Ita.
Both in her work as an intimacy coordinator and while training others, Ita feels a responsibility to help counter some of the unsettling pornography with its unrealistic couplings that so many young people are exposed to these days.
‘I’ve had secondary schools contact me to say they’re going to use the scene from the top of episode two of Normal People to help show their young people a positive depiction of sexual awakening,’ she says proudly.
And it’s not just the actors that need protecting on set. ‘It works both ways,’ says Ita. ‘I’ve had situations where it’s a really hot set and an actor says they’re too hot to wear a towelling dressing gown and instead wants to wander around naked between shots. I’ll tell them: “It’s not suitable for the crew to be confronted with your nakedness in their workplace”.’
Elle McAlpine, one of Ita’s former students, has worked as an intimacy coordinator on It’s A Sin, The Great starring Elle Fanning and Hugh Laurie’s MP drama Roadkill. As an actor, Elle, 31, knows how tricky sex scenes can be, having been traumatised in her own career. ‘I remember filming a sex scene when I was 21 which wasn’t choreographed and all the crew were male, so I had to drag a make-up artist on set for moral support,’ she says.
‘The crew were equally embarrassed and trying not to look, and that made me feel even more shame. If I could go back in time, I would have asked for some time to go through what was expected — what would be on show, what areas of my body could be touched and also asked for female support.
‘The director-actor relationship is a unique one and so often actors just want to please.
‘Now, if they don’t feel comfortable going to their director and saying “I don’t want to do this,” they can speak to the intimacy coordinator who will open up the dialogue with the director.
Daisy Edgar-Jones was one of the first actors to talk about her positive experience of working with an intimacy coordinator while shooting Normal People (pictured with co-star Paul Mescal)
‘Often when the director explains why something forms part of a scene, why that is part of the character, the actors will be totally fine with it or they might say: “I don’t want to perform that kind of sex. Please can we change it?” That’s a slightly more complicated conversation, but we do get there. Overcoming obstacles in this way often creates better sex scenes.’
With It’s A Sin, Elle worked alongside intimacy coordinator David Zachary to draw the shapes they were looking to recreate in the ‘sex montage’ — 11 separate scenes at the start of the drama.
‘Those boys were all really comfortable together and so embodied in their characters they were a dream to work with,’ she says. ‘Russell T. Davies is very detailed, and he writes so beautifully, but, with other productions, it might just say: “They have sex” and we can help them work through it in a very choreographed way.
‘What is difficult is when an actor, who knows they’re meant to be doing these sex scenes, doesn’t want to do them. This happened on one set where Ita and I were brought in late in the day and the content of the sex scenes was a bit of a work in process.
‘The actors were quite young, in their early 20s, and had a lot of gumption insisting: “I’m not doing that” and we had to communicate that to the director. It worked well in the end, but I think it’s important to have sex scenes written out at the start, so they know what they’re signing up to.’
As the public appetite for these graphic, sensual depictions is —given the viewing figures — clearly there, and while the industry has decided time is up for anyone wanting to prey on its members, intimacy coordinators really do have their work cut out for them.
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