How to Build A Sex Scene

Photo: Dean Sewell/The New York Times/Redux

There’s a scene in Hulu’s Normal People where the heroine, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), lets the guy she’s seeing tie her up during sex. Afterward, he doesn’t let her shower. “You’re worthless. You’re nothing,” he tells her. It’s a degrading (if cliché) encounter, and it’s memorable in a show with a sex scene in almost every episode. There’s another distinctive scene in HBO’s I May Destroy You, in which one of the main characters, Terry (Weruche Opia), meets two guys in a bar in Italy. You think things might get messy or even dangerous for her, but they end up having a threesome.

Between Normal People and I May Destroy You, we get good sex, bad sex, and everything in between, with the latter focusing on sexual assault and non-consent. Ostensibly, these two shows are very different outside of this emphasis on intimate content, which is perhaps why they also find common ground in a shared production member: British intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien.

Intimacy coordinators play a new role in the entertainment industry; as the name implies, they oversee and help direct intimate scenes. When used correctly, they’re brought in early in the filmmaking process, while the scene in question is still on the storyboard. O’Brien describes her job as akin to the stunt coordinators’, which, if you’ve ever watched a Fast & Furious film, is requisite. “They listen to the director, read the script, find out what the storytelling is for that stunt, what the risks are and then teach their actors or stunt doubles techniques in order to make that stunt safe. They put in place things like crash mats and then choreograph the whole thing really clearly,” she said when we spoke over Zoom last week. “Just as a stunt coordinator does, we’re putting in our ‘crash mats.’”

Hiring an on-set intimacy coordinator became more common in the wake of the Me Too movement, but O’Brien had been working closely on sex scenes for years before. She used to work as a movement director — she created a set of guidelines and best practices around scenes with sex and nudity in 2014 — and in 2017, she was hired in that specific capacity for the first time.

The Cut spoke with O’Brien about her job, the film industry’s relationship to intimate content today, and how she built sex scenes for two shows that explore completely different kinds of intimate encounters.

Walk me through what an intimacy coordinator does. What happens when a production hires you?

I read the script and ask the director what their vision is and what camera angles we’re using. I want absolute clarity not just about the physical positions but what those angles are going to be. That makes a huge difference as to whether the content can be compromising for an actor.

I make sure the director has spoken to the actors. I’ll check in with the actors — what they’re happy with regarding simulated sexual content, nudity, and touch. I’ll check in with the wardrobe and the first assistant director as well. When all of that work has been done beforehand, that open communication, finding what everybody wants, getting everything in place, then the work will be able to flow easily on the day on set.

The first day on set, I’ll just be listening, but once that’s done, I’ll do “agree touches.” At that point, I’m getting clarity between the actors, so I’ll say, “What is okay for you today to touch? Are you happy to kiss this person today? If so, great. How about a peck. Are you happy to have your face held? Your neck held?”

Giving that structure invites the “no.” It’s saying, “Tell me what’s not suitable, what are your ‘no-go areas,’ so we can all be free as artists and really trust your ‘yes.’” And I always say, “Your yes is your yes, and your no is your no. And your maybe areas are also a no.” Because as soon as you ask if a hand can go up your inner thigh, and they go, “Uhhh, possibly,” we are already in that place of not being free.

You likened this job to what stunt coordinators do. Just as they use safety equipment like crash mats in case of an accident, what are some of the “crash mats” you put in place for a sex scene? 

Actors are never completely naked if there’s close touch. These are people who are not in an intimate relationship. It’s not suitable to have bare genitalia next to each other for any concept or possibility of exchange of fluids. They have to be covered, and it keeps everybody professional.

If an actor is comfortable with that degree of nudity and there is no touch, then it’s absolutely fine for them to be naked. However, if you’ve got simulated sexual content and you want the inference of nudity, the least the ladies will be wearing is a genitalia patch — basically like a G-string with the sides cut off. The gentlemen will wear a genitalia pouch, which is like a sack which holds their genitals and their penis. And it’s tied up.

We work with a whole level of flesh-colored modesty garments: pouches, G-strings, dance belts, shorts, bandanas, bras, camisoles. And we put in place other things: We might create cushions or use blankets so there’s an extra barrier between the two actors.

This way, they feel way more comfortable and can professionally and artistically give themselves to the rhythm of what’s being asked of them, particularly for simulated intercourse.

What are some techniques you might teach actors when they have to act a sex scene? 

We teach this idea that [simulated intimacy] is a body dance, just like a fight scene is a “dance” between two people: There are rhythms, someone’s going to pretend to hit somebody, someone’s going to pretend to receive that hit.

That’s all a body dance, and that’s clearly choreographed. I’m bringing all of my skills as a dancer and a movement director to the role of the intimacy coordinator. We’re finding that rhythm together: where to hold, what to push against each other, so that we can simulate sexual content. It’s just the same as throwing a punch — you don’t actually hit somebody. We’re bringing skills and choreographic structure to make the intimate content look absolutely fantastic.

What sort of pushback did you face when you introduced these guidelines and started to bring them to sets? 

In 2018, an actor was asked about these guidelines on the red carpet, and he said they were censorship and would block creativity. Directors also don’t want you to come in and “take over” the intimate storytelling. And the idea of intimacy coordination was so new, [so] the other pushback was about time. The production would say, “What do you mean? You want time to rehearse? That’s going to take too much time.”

There have been times during shooting where I’m counting the actors off like “two, three, four, rising five, six, seven, eight to orgasm,” and the director would step and say, “You’re directing them.” Actually, I first conceived of this role as an “intimacy director,” akin to a movement director. But the directors would say, “Hold on a minute, I’m the director,” which didn’t happen when I was a movement director.

This is where we have to say, look, this is about putting in place a structure and techniques in order to serve your vision as the director. And once it’s all put in place, what goes in front of the camera is a better scene. And it’s repeatable because the actors know what they’re doing.

What was happening on sets before?

There was predatory and abusive behavior. A lot of the time, people didn’t talk about it, were embarrassed, or felt awkward. [The intimate scene] was not talked about. It was left, dismissed, and not discussed, and the director might say to the actor, “Just get in front of a camera and do it.” And the poor actors were half in their personal selves, half in their professional selves, trying to do their best. It wasn’t repeatable, and they didn’t get the right camera angles. That’s also where unsafe or awkward or harassment situations occurred.

And actors were not expected to have autonomy over their bodies. I would hear, “Oh, you’re an actor. You should be able to do any degree of nudity and a degree of sexual content.” But, of course, we all have different relationships with our nakedness and with what we’re comfortable with in terms of simulated sexual content. Somebody might be really comfortable with their naked body, but somebody else might have a real issue with nakedness, and that does not mean they’re not a brilliant actor or the right person for this role.

Are things on set different now, following Me Too? Are studios embracing this as a production role?

Some of the productions I’ve worked with have put in place what I consider best practices, where they’ve asked us to come in the early stages. I share the guidelines not just with the actors and the director but with the whole production: camera people, lighting, sound, all crews across the board. Both Normal People and I May Destroy You did that.

Last year, a lot of productions did not have a clue and did their best to put intimacy guidelines in practice, but sometimes it was a bit piecemeal. And there are some productions where it seems they’re told you have to get an intimacy coordinator, but they didn’t really want one.

Those productions sort of wanted to tick a box. They’d say, “Just make sure the actors are okay and do the nudity waivers.” They weren’t open to listening and understanding that we bring a skill, techniques, and choreography. And there are some productions that are made in an attitude where they want to get as much nakedness in as possible, without coordination, and often that comes from a place of being gratuitous with the intimate content.

What was it like doing this work for both Normal People and I May Destroy You

In I May Destroy You, there’s a scene in episode three where Terry has the threesome. Weruche Opia was not comfortable doing any simulated sexual content. She shared that with the production and Michaela [Coel, the show’s creator, writer, and star], and we hired the most beautiful, fantastic actor as a body double and all of us worked in conjunction together. For Weruche in the past, she may have really wanted that job, and she would have done the scene and it would really have compromised her. And that wasn’t the case. We got a body double, her boundaries were respected, and we created a super scene that really serves the storytelling.

In Normal People, there was challenging and abusive content in that middle section [the BDSM scenes]. There, you’re making sure the actress is taken care of emotionally and psychologically. Part of the preparation is helping the actor to separate their personal self and professional self, to help them get ready and warm up as they go into the intimate content. But then at the end of the scene, we also ask, “What are you going to do to let go of that scene? What are you going to do emotionally and psychologically to wind down, release that, let it go, and step away?”

So that you have it bookended. And if there’s residue — if somebody is triggered or feel like they need the extra support — I work in conjunction with an artist well-being practitioner. I invite her to co-work with me and invite the production to be in contact with her. As intimacy coordinators, we’re clear we are not counselors, so it’s important that I’ve got someone to refer an actor to should they need that kind of support.

So there are extra things you’re putting in place, but other than that, the process is the same. In [I May Destroy You] some of the — for instance, I was unfamiliar with some of the male gay content. So if there’s physicality that I don’t know, I’ll research it, I’ll read books, I’ll talk to the people from that community. I make sure the physicality is telling the right stories. I do that for any production that’s outside of my realm of experience.

The detail of the sexual content is the extra that I will research each and every time, depending on what’s needed. So I don’t think of myself as an expert on sexual content. I think of myself as an expert in helping to embody intimate storytelling.

How to Build A Sex Scene