Safe ‘Sex’ on Set: Inside Hollywood’s Push for Intimacy Coordinators

“It’s not like since the invention of stunt coordinators there’s been less violence in films,” “The Deuce” star Emily Meade tells TheWrap

When Emily Meade approached HBO about adding an intimacy coordinator to last year’s second season of “The Deuce,” she didn’t even have a word for who that person would be. What she did know ­­– and was finally willing to admit — was that she felt uncomfortable performing the high volume of sex scenes as an aspiring porn star on the show.

“There’s a stunt coordinator for any stunt, there’s an animal handler for any animal, there’s a chaperone for any child,” Meade told TheWrap. “There’s all these protections put in place for anything vulnerable, and yet sex is one of the most vulnerable things, and there isn’t anyone there.”

It was only days after that meeting that HBO contracted intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis to oversee the sex scenes on “The Deuce,” which returned Sunday for its third and final season. And the network now credits Meade with prompting HBO to installing intimacy coordinators on every one of its original scripted shows — including envelope-pushing series like the recent “Euphoria.”

“We’ve had a really good experience with it,” HBO programming president Casey Bloys told TheWrap at the recent Television Critics Association press tour. “It’s the kind of thing that it will come to be seen like a stunt coordinator: something that a director and actors can rely on to do something safely and comfortably. So I’m glad that it’s becoming a standard.”

In July, SAG-AFTRA announced a partnership with Intimacy Directors International and other organizations to “normalize and promote the use of intimacy coordinators within our industry” and to further “standardize, codify and implement guidelines” for onscreen intimacy, simulated sex and performance nudity on TV and film.

Coordinators are typically trained in stunts, acting and choreography, and their specific job is to help make sex acts look realistic without requiring the director or actors to figure out the best way to do it on their own. In some cases, they provide protective covers for genitalia if an actor has a sexually transmitted infection. They can also help stage a scene so it looks as though the performers are nude or are directly making contact when they’re actually separated by a thin membrane.

The idea is to take the unwritten rules and best practices that the industry uses regularly, and put those ideas on paper. “Even common practice sometimes, unless there is paperwork attached and someone has deemed that this is necessary and has been written down as a protocol, it’s not necessarily going to be done all the time,” said Rodis, who co-founded IDI and is working directly with SAG-AFTRA. “We have created those guidelines based on what our good practices are, and that’s part of what we are putting forward to SAG to put as those protocols.”

Meade likened Rodis’ role to that of a stunt coordinator. “Sex is something that is just as complicated, delicate and dangerous, but since it’s not as physical of an outcome of danger, we haven’t given it that same importance or need for safety,” she said.

Emily Meade (Lori) on "The Deuce"

Emily Meade (Lori) on “The Deuce”/HBO

Because intimacy coordinators are a relatively new phenomenon in Hollywood, there’s still apprehension about the role they play. Even Rodis, who now oversees the work of intimacy coordinators on other HBO shows including “Lovecraft Country,” “Watchmen” and “I Know This Much Is True,” still finds herself on the defensive when she steps on set for the first time.

“People think I’m HR, that I’m there to kill any sort of fun or that I’m there to tell people that they’re wrong. Of course I’m there to implement certain guidelines, but I’m there to be a team player and work with everyone,” Rodis said. “I had someone say to me on set recently, ‘Just your presence here can be a threat. I look at you and what you’re doing, and I think of every set where I’ve done unsafe things in the past.'”

The use of outside advisers — and written guidelines — has been much more common in stage productions, both by professional theater companies and in college programs. That was the background of Ita O’Brien, a British intimacy coordinator whose organization Intimacy on Set introduced guidelines that predate the #MeToo movement.

“You get stories, there’s a moment with a kiss, and an actress says to me, ‘We were supposed to have a peck on the cheek and the actor grabs me and sticks his tongue down my throat,'” O’Brien said. “Without clear choreography and agreement and consent written down, it has been really hard to go, ‘Hold on, what the hell are you doing?'”

The challenges of a stage play, where a particular moment of intimacy needs to be repeated multiple times across many nights, demand written guidelines, O’Brien said. Specific choreography can even be added to a new play’s script for use in future productions.

The Nightingale

IFC Films

Some in Hollywood seek other resources to address tricky on-camera scenes. On the set of her film “The Nightingale,” director Jennifer Kent brought in a clinical psychologist to provide comfort and reassurance to her actors while filming a harrowing and violent rape scene. In a recent interview with TheWrap, Kent said she was unfamiliar with intimacy coordinators and wondered why her set might need one in place of someone who could provide psychological care, let alone act as a “watchdog.”

“That big thing was rehearsed five times with a stunt coordinator, rehearsed physically to protect every human that was involved. There could not have been more care,” she said. “It shocks me that it’s sort of needed, because it’s the director’s job, but I understand that not all directors really understand how important it is.”

Alex Hall, a supervising producer on “The Deuce” who has directed several episodes across all three seasons, said that he has seen first-hand the difference that an intimacy coordinator can make. He recalled a scene from the show’s first season before Rodis was brought on board when Maggie Gyllenhaal was asked to simulate a blow job as a live rat jumped out at her. Like Meade, he knew they had asked a lot of the cast. And though he had already done everything he could to keep the production safe, he recognized that the actors needed more.

He acknowledged that many of his peers have a “combination of confusion and suspicion” about intimacy coordinators. “I have a lot of friends who are directors in the DGA and all these other sources were coming to me and saying, ‘What’s up with this? Is this something we need to worry about? Who are these people, and are they going to take away my directorial autonomy on set?'” Hall said. “It would’ve been concerning to me if it was like, ‘This is the way it has to work.’ But Alicia’s approach is never like that. It’s also very collaborative and empowering for the actors.”

The pace on production of “The Deuce” never slowed, Hall said, noting that much of Rodis’ work is done behind the scenes, even weeks in advance, so that shooting itself runs smoothly. As a director and producer, he views intimacy coordinators as another resource for a director who can help make the best scene possible.

“It’s almost like there’s an agreement among everybody of what’s about to go down. And for actors especially, and honestly for me as a director, there’s a lot of value in that. It makes everything a lot calmer, it makes everybody more confident, and it makes it more efficient,” Hall said. “You don’t have to go through a lot of the feeling out process — no pun intended — in the 15 minutes before you roll the camera.”

Meade added, “To have everything planned out, clear and comfortable beforehand has allowed me so much more safety, which has allowed me so much more creative freedom in the end to truly be present, to focusing on my performance instead of trying to protect myself physically and emotionally while I’m trying to also act.”

Before intimacy coordinators appeared on set, Meade said, “My only power was to say no. I either had to pass on jobs or say no nudity, or ‘No, I will not be a part of this scene.’ And there was never conversations, never a ‘but’ or ‘if’ or nuance to it.”

The Deuce Maggie Gyllenhaal

Yet when SAG-AFTRA first met with IDI, the union expressed the concern of some members that an intimacy coordinator might try to take control away from the director. SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris reiterated that the guidelines are meant to make a safer work environment.

“When I started almost 35 years ago, we didn’t have any kind of structure or protection or procedures for performers when we worked. I hit my mark and they told me what I had to do, and I either did it or I didn’t get the job,” Carteris told TheWrap in an interview. “We’re really trying to create those protocols and the structure because we know that’s going to make for better work for everybody. You’re almost too vulnerable as a performer now without that kind of structure.”

Here’s some of what SAG-AFTRA and IDI mean when they say the industry needs to establish formal protocols, things that Rodis says are not currently within SAG contracts:

  • Clearly defining what a “closed set” means; today the written definition involves anyone having “business with the production”
  • Requiring a robe be available for actors who are to appear nude
  • Choreographing a sex scene rather than allow actors to just “go at it”
  • Creating nudity riders to ensure actors are aware of what they’ve agreed to show – and not – and are not blindsided by unexpected requests for nudity or sexual acts
  • Getting the position of “intimacy coordinator” covered by SAG-AFTRA contracts
  • Establishing protocols for how an intimacy coordinator is meant to work and behave on set

Many believe that resistance to these guidelines will fade as the industry begins to understand how intimacy coordinators function — and how they don’t.

“So much of the pushback is just from a lack of understanding of what it is and the fear they’re just there to censor and de-sexualize things, when it’s the exact opposite,” Meade said. “It’s not like since the invention of stunt coordinators there’s been less violence in films. And there certainly won’t be less sexuality in films. It’ll just be done in a safer way. Hopefully the more it’s used, the less people will be afraid of it.”

Brian Welk

Brian Welk

Film Reporter • • Twitter: @brianwelk


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