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Choreographed sex, 6 feet apart

How to be a Hollywood intimacy coordinator during Covid-19, explained.

Connell and Marianne lie next to each other in bed on the show Normal People.
Hulu’s Normal People was filmed before the pandemic. But its many sex scenes would have been a lot more complicated to pull off on a Covid-19-era set.
Enda Bowe/Hulu

It was at some point last summer that I first felt a knee-jerk reaction watching TV characters touch each other onscreen. Every time strangers shook hands, I wanted to graciously remind them to consider elbow bumps. Frictioned, sweaty bodies in a concert scene created a sense of suffocated nostalgia. And then there was sex.

For those of us who fled to our parents’ suburban homes or who had only pursued Zoom dates since the start of the pandemic, sex hadn’t been (and still might not be) in the cards for months. So to put it bluntly, watching actors (seemingly) fuck felt foreign, paired with a modicum of release. It made me wonder how exactly production is navigating these scenes — particularly those with intertwining body parts — while Covid-19 remains a threat.

According to Julie Feldman, an entertainment lawyer who negotiates intimacy contracts (a.k.a. riders) that cover everything from wardrobe to how shots are going to happen, what might not have been discussed previously within the realm of discomfort — like kissing — has now come to the forefront, even with a vaccine rollout in progress. “Intimate acts [like] hand-holding or hugging, things that I never would have had a conversation about,” Feldman says, are now much more relevant.

As a variety of new safety protocols abound on TV and film sets, questions arise of what scripting simulated sex scenes between actors really looks like: Do you skip the intimacy altogether? Or is there a way to do it safely? The crux of the answer lies with a project’s intimacy coordinator. Their integral role in a sexual storyline, while having predated the pandemic by a couple of years, has become even more important as conversations around consent and physical touch are more prevalent in our day-to-day cultural awareness.

Intimacy coordinators haven’t been around that long. But they’re becoming more and more important.

At its core, the role of an intimacy coordinator is to communicate an actor’s needs to the director, producer, and fellow actors during simulated sex scenes or whenever nudity is present. They approach these scenes like a stunt coordinator would, by giving actors a sense of what will be expected of them through choreography and discussions of consent.

Intimacy coordinators aim to establish comfort levels with actors — for example, “Where are you comfortable being touched today?” — and provide space for them after a scene so they can detach from their characters if need be. The job might also involve redirecting a scene to meet an actor’s needs.

“I had no point of reference for how we make these kinds of themes seem real and really drive the story forward [without] crossing the boundaries that you don’t want crossed,” says actress Christina Elmore, of Twenties and Insecure. “So I was grateful for [my intimacy coordinator]. They were like, ‘Let’s just figure out what your boundaries are.’”

The history of intimacy coordination could almost barely be considered a history; up until the last few years, simulated sex scenes were typically “worked out” by the actors, or treated like any other scene. Many times, everything went fine, as far as we know. But the lack of a structured approach could result in abusive power dynamics, where protections of actors as both workers and individuals were nonexistent — think back to the notoriously nonconsensual filming of Last Tango in Paris, wherein director Bernardo Bertolucci withheld a rape scene in the script from actress Maria Schneider in order to evoke authentic humiliation, effectively by having Schneider’s co-star actually commit sexual assault.

Spearheaded by former stunt coordinators, actors, and many women in film and theater, an intentional, organized effort came together to mend this gap. Almost in tandem with the revival of Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement — which exploded in late 2017, after the Harvey Weinstein case catalyzed a cultural reckoning — a subset of the industry emerged that sought to, according to intimacy coordinator Mia Schachter (Perry Mason, Grey’s Anatomy), “eliminate surprises for the actor.”

Cue Alicia Rodis (High Maintenance, The Deuce), who, in her intimacy coordinator role at HBO, is the first intimacy coordinator in the US to be employed by a mainstream network. She and Ita O’Brien (Normal People, I May Destroy You) are widely considered to be the original intimacy coordinators, simultaneously having developed their techniques on opposite sides of the world.

Though the job is only in its third year in the limelight, Rodis underlines that the “industry has grown considerably and continues to today.” And while not every network requires its projects to retain an intimacy coordinator on set, the industry’s evolution is evidenced by coordinators’ employment beyond HBO at Netflix, Hulu, and elsewhere — like Lena Waithe’s production company, which announced last summer that it will use intimacy coordinators on all of its projects. Schachter estimates that there are 80-plus intimacy coordinators in training or graduated in the US as of late 2020.

Since production in Hollywood has restarted after a wave of shutdowns earlier in the pandemic, intimacy coordinators like O’Brien, Rodis, and Schachter have seen their work in communication, consent, and boundaries become an important pillar of successful Covid-19 prevention measures. On what is to be expected of the intimacy coordination role for the remainder of the pandemic and even after it, HBO’s Rodis anticipates being called in more frequently. “It’s even more important to define consent and be specific. I think we’re going to find a lot of those tools being used.”

How intimacy protocols and communication have changed during the pandemic

“Since March [of 2020], a lot of my time has been devoted specifically to the protocols and processes around reopening the industry,” says Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, general counsel and COO of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the labor union commonly known as SAG-AFTRA. These protocols are vast and granular, specifically tailored to alleviate risk as much as possible in an environment where central workers have to take off their masks to successfully perform their jobs.

SAG-AFTRA has brought in outside consultants, epidemiologists, and industrial hygienists. And according to Crabtree-Ireland, it was having pre-production meetings for every project — up until the unions reached an agreement with the studios and streamers in September. This diligence stems from the fact that reopening affected every staff member, from the camera crew to the wardrobe department to the showrunner and producer.

“With Covid,” Schachter says, “what we’re doing is predicting a lot more.” Now, there’s a need to go beyond the questions of consent and comfortability embedded in sexual choreography, with coordinators facing the question of health and actors’ anxiety when re-entering work after isolation.

When asked about this responsibility, O’Brien — who is renowned for her intimacy work, perhaps most famously on Normal People — dovetails the pandemic and sex in a way that could melt any gender studies theorist: “We are not health experts, but we can pose to the actor, ‘Are you happy with this? Do you have any concerns we can help facilitate?”

O’Brien explains that the beauty of the intimacy coordinator role in the Covid-19 era is that it was already established prior to the pandemic, unlike newer roles created to oversee Covid-19-specific safety protocols and provide their stamp of approval for, say, staff bringing their own masks to work. Intimacy coordinators’ training has set them up for success; their onus to communicate comfortability and safety can now incorporate actors’ health apprehensions, making them well-suited and prepared for a Covid-19-conscious set.

According to SAG-AFTRA’s safety guidelines, “Testing protocols may be adjusted by mutual agreement of the producer and the unions if circumstances warrant.” For many projects, all cast and crew are required to quarantine for two weeks before work begins. Producers are responsible for stockpiling personal protective equipment (PPE). There might be daily symptom questionnaires, tests at least three times a week (if not more), frequent temperature checks, and armbands that define your “zone” or “pod” for filming (and dining).

If a behind-the-scenes crew member tests positive, their entire department is supposed to have an understudy so the whole group can quarantine. In the event that a cast member has gotten sick, production is paused. “It really impacted me, thinking [about] how serious this is,” O’Brien says of the gravity of responsibility the cast and crew feel to take care of themselves and each other.

The challenge of building intimacy over Zoom

When asked about going back to work, Elmore immediately referenced the “vibes” of filming. “What makes me most nervous is that all of the protocols — in order to help us all to stay healthy and safe — are going to mean that [there are] changes [to the] vibes.” Because while we as viewers have distanced ourselves from the storytelling we witness on screen, actors are humans showing up to work in an environment that is, at the end of the day, risky.

“Actors’ behavior has changed,” says acting coach Miranda Harcourt — whose clients include a number of high-profile actors around the world. When working through rehearsals via Zoom, she has observed that “actors are unconsciously more fearful of each other, so there is a sense of holding back or retraction in the space between people which there wasn’t before.” Within that “space,” there is a real, imminent danger, which makes the role of an intimacy coordinator that much more paramount.

The benefit of Zoom rehearsals, as O’Brien describes it, “is that when we are together we can be even more efficient, so that close proximity is limited.” There’s more communication around the ideal visual of a scene, because actors are often not in the same room during these early meetings.

For Harcourt, whose work as an acting coach has operated remotely from New Zealand for the majority of her career, the pandemic didn’t shift much. In fact, she says the tools she’d previously developed to create intimacy have transferred seamlessly when intimacy must be built without touch.

“It’s very easy for people to lose their sense of body when they’re connecting with each other remotely,” she explains. “So on Zoom, I might put the actors into a breakout room and ask them to share a secret with each other, [like] ‘when was the first time you fell in love?’ Sharing that secret knowledge about each other can create an amazing sense of connectivity.”

Harcourt uses a range of exercises to help actors engage with one another remotely. Sometimes this involves prompting them to talk about scars on their body; sometimes it involves having actors send each other gifts or posing the 36 questions that lead to love. “What I’m trying to engender between actors is what in quantum physics they call quantum entanglement, where you are so connected that you can really feel each other across space.”

What Covid-19-era logistics mean for the future of sex on screen

Building an in-person dynamic within the parameters of pandemic safety now requires the director and coordinator to supervise an intimate scene through masks while trying to maintain a comfortable environment for the actors. O’Brien says filming these scenes has revealed an appreciation of human touch that, previously so present in our day-to-day lives, has overwhelmingly dissipated. “Being able to go right through to that skin-to-skin contact, when you see people actually coming together freely” explains O’Brien, “there’s a sense of ‘Aah, this is beautiful.’” But the mechanisms of these scenes look and feel different for everyone, to some extent.

Intimacy coordinators have to account for the least comfortable actor in the room when shooting a simulated sex scene. While this is normal for their choreography, the threshold of comfort is now higher by default. This is true even with the distribution of effective Covid-19 vaccines, as vaccination status and the willingness to get one at all varies greatly from person to person. Rodis said that in talks with producers, she’s had to get as meticulous as discussing actors’ breathing or yelling in a scene to anticipate where they might get uncomfortable, or need to shift gears.

To account for these shifts, directors are having to be more flexible with the story and the shots. Where two actors might refuse to kiss on the lips, the scene refocuses to kissing down the neck. “We’re looking at having the same energy and the same content while choreographing with different body parts,” O’Brien explains. “That desire and that release and that passion of kissing down the neck can be as passionate as lip-to-lip.”

There’s a new sense of reallocating energy to account for actors’ consent. To explain this idea, O’Brien references a sex scene in Mel Smith’s 1989 film Tall Guy, in which Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum have a “maverick” dynamic and, as the two actors come to simulated orgasm, the camera cuts to a phallic cactus, or to a completely trashed bedroom where the armoire has fallen. In that scene, O’Brien underlines the power of “physical storytelling with inanimate objects.” In the same vein, she says, “if we can’t touch, we can still help support the choreography of that dynamic and have that intimate energy without people [touching].”

Schachter recalls one recent on-set experience as “very neutered,” explaining: “Originally, we had a scene written where [the actors were scripted to] really go at it; instead the way we shot it was post-coital: head-to-foot, so they could keep their respiratory systems 6 feet apart.” In other instances, there are talks of body doubles, mannequins, or closeup shots to protect actors and limit exposure.

But beyond the logistics of filming itself, intimate content might take a new direction, at least for a little while. Like switching from lip-to-lip contact to a kiss on the neck, Schachter says there may be more comfort in not facing one another for a simulated sex scene — but of course, a literal change in position can change the story or the tone of a scene. So there is a distinct possibility that we’ll see fewer intimate scenes onscreen until the pandemic is over, vaccines are more widely distributed, and herd immunity is reached. “There’s going to be a lot more that’s going to have to be faked and nuanced,” Feldman says.

Still, despite my newfound tendency to recoil when I see actors touching onscreen while the pandemic continues to disrupt our reality, I’m comforted by Rodis’s reflection on her current intimacy work: “Sex and intimacy don’t stop for pandemics in the human experience, and it hasn’t on set either.”

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