”Actors touching or kissing each other, that’s a question that will be about comfort level down the line,“ Tim Allen tells TheWrap
Any hope of Hollywood resuming productions any time soon hinges on the participation of at least one key group: actors. And not everyone on camera is willing to jump right back into performing intimate sex scenes, close-up fight scenes or anything else that involves a lot of close contact on screen.
The mood of actors across Hollywood seems to reflect the contours of the country; some will have the same comfort level with intimacy that they did before the coronavirus started, while others want a whole new level of protections and safeguards before performing. They’re now looking to the guilds, to prominent producers who have proposed plans and to countries that have already shared guidelines about how to safely get back to work.
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“Some actors have said to me that their level of comfort of doing intimacy work isn’t going to change. They feel like when they get back to shooting, they get right back up on the horse and keep doing it business as usual,” Amanda Blumenthal, an intimacy coordinator who runs Intimacy Professionals Association told TheWrap. “I’ve talked to other actors who are incredibly concerned, and they don’t feel comfortable resuming doing intimacy work the way we did it pre-COVID. They feel like they would need a lot more reassurances in the form of testing to know that the risk was significantly lower.”
As actors and the rest of Hollywood await the formal guidance of SAG-AFTRA and the other guilds, the Screen Actors Guild is looking closely at three key areas in making any guidelines: sanitation, testing and intimacy. Effectively, how do you handle proper social distancing on set with access to hand sanitizers and proper cleanliness; how do you make sure everyone is tested and can be cleared as healthy; and how do you handle scenes that involve actors on screen being in close contact or even intimate without masks?
“We’re working aggressively with industry safety experts and coordinating with other guilds and unions on the issue of safety,” David P. White, national executive director of SAG-AFTRA said in a statement. “There is also a particular emphasis on the need to have good protocols around intimate scenes. No one yet knows when the industry will be able to return to work but we intend to be ready at the earliest possible time to ensure the safety of our members.”
In recent guidelines released by Sweden and Denmark for how productions can return, Nordic officials recommended minimizing the number of people on set, tiered arrivals and departures for crew members, limiting hair, makeup and wardrobe to featured cast only, conducting casting remotely and even scene restrictions. However, there were no specific restrictions listed about intimacy.
Alicia Rodis, another leading intimacy coordinator who is contracted by HBO and leads Intimacy Directors International, agrees with Blumenthal that actors are eager to get back to work, but only if it means they don’t have to compromise their safety for a job.
“Everyone wants to come back to work, but they want to do it responsibly and safely,” Rodis said. “We don’t want it just to be about people are going to grit their teeth and bare it so that they can get through and get another job. Because everyone’s always worried where the next job will come from. I would hate to say that with safety in regards to COVID.”
Even before the pandemic, intimacy coordinators were closely involved with the finer details of how to keep scenes that require a lot of contact safe and sanitary. Both Rodis and Blumenthal agree that while it’s too early to create specific policy on what will be a safe scene of intimacy, they do expect there will be more conversations about consent, privacy and liability as it relates to intimacy on set.
“I can’t imagine them wanting to go away from that. If anything they’ll want more. Consent is going to be just as important if not more,” Rodis said. “I think the idea of signing away liability to productions, I cannot foresee myself doing that. There’s still accountability that has to happen. I want to get back to work just as much anyone else, and that’s just as someone who works on set and absolutely loves what they do, but we have to have someone signing off and saying this is safe.”
Blumenthal says that in addition to more hand washing and hand sanitizer when working with actors, she could have to alter choreography that had already been planned for the shows that had their seasons interrupted. Some of the ideas she’s considering could include reducing mouth-to-mouth intimacy in a scene, putting actors in sexual positions that don’t require them to be face to face, or even utilizing camera tricks that provide the illusion that actors are closer together than they are. Though Rodis adds any changes would have to be conversations with the creatives.
“There’s all sorts of practical things we can do on the ground to mitigate some level of risk,” Blumenthal said. “But without the extra layer of testing, there’s always going to be a certain level of risk, and whether or not actors feel comfortable assuming that is potentially something they’re going to have to make their own informed decisions about.”
She added that it won’t just be actors that have to make these decisions, but also representatives, individual studio policies and of course state and federal guidelines.
But such guidelines will need to be applied not just to the shows with steamy, graphic sex scenes but also dramas and sitcoms that involve regular amounts of contact, and it remains to be seen how long any show could proceed without at least some contact.
“For us, we could probably skate by for a while with not touching each other. But once the staff knows predictively that nobody has the virus, you could be comfortable,” “Last Man Standing” star Tim Allen told TheWrap as the show awaits a season renewal. “But for Nancy Travis and myself, it’s ‘Are you comfortable?’ and the other actors touching or kissing each other, that’s a question that will be about comfort level down the line.”
Sweden and Denmark’s guidelines also made restrictions on crowd scenes, specifically no scenes inside night clubs, church congregations or political demos, saying it’s “irresponsible” to execute any scenes where social distancing can’t be upheld.
Michael Barnard, a background actor who has worked on shows like “Black Monday” and “Westworld,” has previously had to perform intimate, simulated sex scenes, and he’s certain the days of having 100 actors in tents for massive crowd shots or buffet lines and craft services for actors, especially non-union ones, are over. He’s now questioning his ability to find work in the future and how those jobs might one day advance his career with more featured roles.
“I’m very concerned. I’m trying to figure it out. How could I trust an intimate scene, but on top of that, how could I trust a crowd scene?” Barnard said. “Actors want to act. People’s level of fears ranges from ‘I don’t care’ to ‘I’ll never do it again.’ But I would say in the middle range, people want to trust health experts and our governor to discover when it’s safe to mingle again as actors.”
That’s a question that’s also weighing on producers and showrunners as they propose plans that could get people back to work. Janet Mock, a writer, director and producer on “Pose,” said it will affect the third season of the show’s script now that they won’t be able to shoot ballroom scenes with dozens of background actors.
“We need less people on set and everything will be almost treated as a closed set,” Mock said. “One thing we’ll have to do to make sure that our actors are protected and that the cast and crew is protected in general is have less people around when the set is being lit, during rehearsals, less PAs around stars of the show. It’s frustrating, but we’re gonna need less contact in order to tell stories about humanity.”
While there are a lot of plans and projections at the moment, most in the industry agree guidance from doctors and scientists will determine much of how stories are actually captured.
“Everything that came before coronavirus was ‘BC’ and now everything on our end, when we pick it back will be ‘AC,” said Michael Robin, executive producer for CBS’ legal drama “All Rise.” “We’ll see where the safety of all of it is, in terms of when we’re allowed to gather again and what science has sort of kicked into this. That will also tell us a lot about what we can and can’t accomplish.”
Since “All Rise” takes place in contemporary Los Angeles, Robin said from an onscreen standpoint, the pandemic will play a major role. The scripted drama managed to produce a new episode remotely that will air Monday, showing how the characters are adjusting to shelter-in-place orders.
“The world will have had that, or still has it in it. We’ll have to sort of pick up on that in our storytelling.”
But there are some promising signs on the horizon. TheWrap reported this week that Netflix has been able to begin production on a series in Iceland utilizing the country’s current safety guidelines of no more than 20 people allowed in a space at a time. And because of the country’s spacious areas for filming and wider access to testing, the production has been able to create a contained environment of only healthy people. Similarly, a soap opera called “Neighbours” in Australia has resumed production, utilizing crew members as background actors, but without scenes of intimacy.
“The industry will continue. Life finds a way, art finds a way,” Rodis said. “I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to stop telling certain stories because of this. We just have to get more creative and keep everyone’s well being at the forefront.”
Jennifer Maas and Tim Baysinger contributed to this report.
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