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The Industry

Advice from intimacy coordinators Ita O’Brien and Marci Liroff for actors considering roles that require nudity or intimate scenes.

More than ever before, roles may ask actors to expose themselves and perform intimate scenes so it’s important you’re aware of your rights and set your boundaries. We hosted a seminar with Ita O’Brien and Marci Liroff, moderated by casting director Nancy Bishop, to get their advice on how you can make an informed decision about taking on these types of roles and how you can protect yourself.

In that moment of consent, be it regarding nudity, simulated sex or touch, we invite your no. Think of your no as a gift, as a positive no so that your yes can be trusted.
Ita O’Brien
Intimacy Coordinator and Founder of Intimacy On Set

What do intimacy coordinators do?

Marci Liroff: We’re there to make people understand that intimate scenes are sacred to a certain degree, they demand respect and a closed set. Part of our job is to educate the crew as language is very important. We don’t call it ‘the sex scene’ or ‘they’re having sex’, we say they’re having simulated sex so it really changes the dynamic.

I like the notion that an intimacy coordinator interrupts the power dynamic on set. Imagine you’re an actor and you’re trying to advocate for yourself but you’re doing it to the person who has the hiring and firing power? It doesn’t make sense.

Ita O’Brien: Intimacy is a body dance, there are two bodies moving together in a rhythm of the intercourse and there are techniques, choreography and body awareness that tells that story. Intimacy coordinators use the skill of choreographing two bodies with an awareness of how they move together and what the rhythm is.

Making an informed decision about going for roles that ask for nudity or intimacy

Marci Liroff: This is the time to have the conversation, not only with yourself but with your reps to let them know what you’re looking for and what you will and won’t do. It’s to do with your threshold and what you’re interested in doing. Every project will be different in terms of what they’re looking for, what the story is they’re trying to tell and what your involvement will be. There’s always a discussion to be had and an intimacy coordinator can really help you with that. When I’m working on something I find that actors can’t find the words for what they’re trying to say so we help you verbalise that and examine what your comfort level is.

Ita O’Brien: Before you go to the audition, make sure you equip yourself by reading the script. If there’s intimacy or nudity required then this should be made clear to your agent and communicated to you. It’s your responsibility to question if you like the writing and to find out about the director and their reputation. Consider all of that and decide if you want to go for the job. If you do go for the job, have a conversation with the production team and ask if they’ll be working in conjunction with an intimacy coordinator.

Marci Liroff: Look at what the director and producers have done before, look at the tone of their work. They could shoot something and then turn it into something completely different for a different market that they’re trying to titillate. You really need to do your research about who these people are and if it fits within your comfort zone.

Considerations when accepting roles that demand nudity

Ita O’Brien: Question if the role is right for you and if so, what’s your agreement and consent. Perhaps there’s a degree of sexual content or nudity that’s going to be required and that might make you a bit nervous and it might be challenging but it’s not going to compromise you. Overstepping your boundaries can cause long-term damage psychologically and emotionally so really consider what is right for you. Your career is sculptured more by what you say no to than what you say yes to.

Be honest and state what your boundaries are. If this is the right role for you then in the conversation with the director and your agent really consider ‘What am I ok with? What am I not ok with?’ Advocate for yourself and say ‘this is the degree of nudity I’m happy with or I can offer to you’ and if that job is not right for you then happily say, ‘no this isn’t right for me’ and walk away.

As you can see from Normal People when an actor can work really freely with intimate content you can create something of real beauty. But you can only do that if your personal, private and intimate body is taken care of and that you feel empowered and autonomous. In that moment of consent, be it regarding nudity, simulated sex or touch, we invite your no. Think of your no as a gift, as a positive no so that your yes can be trusted.

There’s a shift in the industry to give confidence to actors to freely say their no so that we can all work professionally and create better work that’s within that agreement and consent.

We’ve all had different journeys in our lives, we all have different relationships with our bodies and what’s happened to us so it might mean a certain degree of nudity or sexual content is out of bounds for you but that does not mean you’re not a brilliant actor. By stating your boundaries you also don’t compromise your producers so they can make an informed decision casting you in a role you’re comfortable with.

Knowing when nude and intimate scenes are the best way to tell a story, and when they are not.

Ita O’Brien: Writers can write the content that is right for that storytelling. With the industry calling out that we need to do better, having a code of conduct means that we don’t have that sense of gratuitous intimacy or nudity content and makes sure the work is done with best practice.

For me, there are three tenants of intimacy coordination:

  1. Open communication and transparency. Right from the start when an actor is invited to read a script, they should consider: What is that content? Does it serve the storytelling? Is it something that they feel as an actor they can get behind? Are they happy to give that nudity or sexual content in service of that storytelling?
  2. Agreement and consent.
  3. Clear choreography.

We’re inviting open communication so that interrogation continues throughout and we continue to look at what the scene is and how it serves the storytelling. Within those conversations, it’ll become very clear when it’s gratuitous and not needed. For me, that’s a big part of an actor saying ‘yes, I’m happy to honour this’ or ‘no, it doesn’t feel right to me’. There can be the same content that feels like it’s just added on top yet there can be another storytelling where it’s so inherent within the piece that you feel you can say ‘yes, as an actor, I can fill myself up with intention, character, storytelling, so that this will be suitable’. The intimacy coordinator can allow for those conversations to happen.

Storyboards are brilliant and I always say, whenever possible, please can they be created – although sometimes directors don’t like working with them. Dialogue is clear but with intimate content, which is a body dance, the same content can feel gratuitous and exposing as opposed to tasteful depending on where the camera is and how it’s shot. Even if they don’t have someone who can draw, draw stickmen just to have a visual image that everyone can look at to understand and decide if they’re happy or not happy with it.

What are nudity riders and how can they protect us?

Marci Liroff: [In the US] A nudity rider is part of your contract and it should be negotiated before you step foot on set. Your rep should negotiate specific language about what you’ve agreed to do and what you have not agreed to do. For example, if you’re ok showing a breast but no nipple or the camera can only be on your naked body for four seconds etc.

Be as specific as you can and make sure you understand the language. Ask a lot of questions and have it all down in writing as it has to be adhered to on set. They might spring something on you on set but remember you have a nudity rider that states what you will do.

Ita O’Brien: With British actors, they will sign what they’re comfortable to do nudity and simulated sex-wise in their basic contract. There’s not a separate rider drawn up for each intimate scene whereas when I work with SAG-AFTRA actors, we create a separate nudity rider for every intimate scene.

Marc Liroffi: It depends on the production. Some have one blanket nudity rider but it is better to have one for each scene because every one has different needs.

actors have to remember that your consent can, will and should be different on every project because it’s different depending on the material and it can be different for you on that day.
Marci Liroff
Intimacy Coordinator

What if I want to change my mind and revoke my consent?

Marci Liroff: Directors or filmmakers might say ‘well, you did it in that movie, why won’t you do it in my movie?’, actors have to remember that your consent can, will and should be different on every project because it’s different depending on the material and it can be different for you on that day. [As Intimacy coordinators] we check in with the actor each day to see how they’re feeling on the day about a scene.

You can revoke your consent, even though you previously agreed to it. You can agree beforehand, have signed the nudity rider, be shooting the scene, have done a few takes and then you may be triggered by something or suddenly something doesn’t feel right and you literally cannot go on with the scene. You have the right to pull your consent.

The production has the right to use the takes that have already been shot. We can then hopefully come to a compromise for the rest of the day to get that scene done or the production has the right to hire a body double. That’s why it’s great to have an intimacy coordinator there, to help you with that negotiation.

Ita O’Brien: Ideas shift and change as filming progresses so an intimacy coordinator will check in with you ahead of each scene to see if you’re still comfortable with it. Your limits can dictate if scenes can be tweaked e.g. if an actor wakes up and decides they won’t want to show themselves, the intimate coordinator works with the director and crew to find a compromise and choreograph it. It could be down to being creative with wardrobe, looking at camera angles etc.

You’ve spent hours on your training and skill to develop your craft as an actor. It’s precious and you need to make sure the person who you give your craft to is someone who’s going to take care of it.
Ita O’Brien
Intimacy Coordinator and Founder of Intimacy On Set

What can performers do to protect themselves when there’s no intimacy coordinator on a project?

Ita O’Brien: Equip yourself with the Intimacy On Set Guidelines. If you’re meeting the director, producer etc. in person then print the guidelines out and hand them over so they have something concrete in their hands to read through. Their response will let you know if they’re someone who will work with you in a respectful way in order to create the best work possible.

You’re a professional, the director is a professional, before signing the contract, you or your agent can invite that conversation with the director to speak about the intimate content, find out how they’re going to work and if they’re not going to work with the intimacy guidelines or an intimacy coordinator then you can offer this structure. It’s for you as an actor to say ‘I want to give you the best intimacy scenes that I can give you, and the way I can do that is to work with a professional structure that allows me to bring all of my skill as an actor to the intimate content’.

You’ve spent hours on your training and skill to develop your craft as an actor. It’s precious and you need to make sure the person who you give your craft to is someone who’s going to take care of it.

Marci Liroff: Actors are very hardwired to say yes to everything. You have to remember that things have shifted for the better. Try and find your voice to advocate for yourself if there isn’t an intimacy coordinator involved or if you get surprised with something on set. Beforehand, your job is to be as specific as possible about what you’ll do, and pick their brain about what exactly is going to happen.

It’ll be different on every set but if you want to bring an ally or peer at an audition or on set when you’re filming an intimate scene, have it approved ahead of time. Once an intimacy coordinator’s work is done and we’re shooting that day, we’ll sit by the monitor and make sure everything on screen is exactly what you agreed to do. Your ally can be there, looking at the monitor so they can keep an eye on if there’s a boob slip, or if your butt isn’t showing in a way you agreed to on your nudity rider.

Planning for the best and most artistically fulfilling experience possible

Marci Liroff: A closed set means only necessary personnel are on set (perhaps 5-6 people) and all the monitors are flagged or tented for privacy. Only people on the closed set list can look at those monitors. If you don’t have an intimacy coordinator on your set, you can ask for these measures to be taken in your contract.

Genital on genital contact is never allowed. To make sure that never happens there are modesty garments or modesty patches, genital pouches and nipple patches that can be used. This will be discussed with wardrobe ahead of time to make sure that they’re on board as they’ll often be the ones furnishing the garments. There’s also a thing called a barrier with more padding that can be taped on or put in between you so you don’t feel the pressure between bodies.

We can work with props to create a prosthetic penis because maybe the scene calls for an erect penis. There are many departments involved in all of this but intimacy coordinators oversee the whole thing. It’s not necessarily your genitals that are on display although it’s our goal to make it look authentic.

Ita O’Brien: It’s really important that we have all the detail [of simulated intercourse] correct and it’s choreographed and of course it’s all simulated and a lot of that is depicted by breath. If all of that detail is correct then the audience can invest in the truth of the situation and stay with character as invariably the scene is there because it’s telling us something about those characters and their relationship with each other.

How can an actor protect themselves on student or indie films with smaller budgets?

Marci Liroff: As wonderful as the guidelines are, they aren’t union rules yet. They’re certainly best practice but [productions] don’t have to apply them. We invite filmmakers, if you’re doing an indie or student film, there are some intimacy coordinators that will help you out because they may be in training or starting out and need the experience. I have done many free projects as I was starting out so don’t be afraid to reach out to someone like Ita or myself and you’ll probably be able to get somebody to work on your set.

Ita O’Brien: I’ve got intimacy coordinators all over the UK and Europe, Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand and I’m constantly looking for opportunities for intimacy coordinators in training to have experience. It’s a win-win situation, those in training are being mentored and need opportunities to gain experience and you get our expertise on set.

What’s going to happen to intimacy post-COVID-19?

Marci Liroff: It’s too early to speculate what COVID-19 means for intimate scenes but we’ll follow guidelines from unions and guilds when they’re available. We’ll have to pay attention to all the different health and safety measures that different states and countries are putting together.

Intimacy coordinators will figure out a workaround so the scene still looks great but maybe it’s different positions, maybe it’s not deep kissing, maybe it’s a look or breath. There’s going to be a huge change in the way we shoot things.

Ita O’Brien: What concerns me is that we don’t go back to that place of it being at the actor’s discretion and therefore the actor is open to coercion.

We’ve got to be responsive, each production will bring its own processes and protocol to make sure the health of everybody is taken care of. It’s important that can be backed up with each production being insured. It shouldn’t be left to the actor’s discretion and therefore if something goes wrong and they get ill and it impacts their life that they suddenly find they’re vulnerable because they’re not insured or covered in any way – that’s what we’re mitigating against.

Actors, as with the guidelines, we’re inviting a positive no and your no is a no, your yes is a yes, and a maybe is a no. If you feel at all concerned or compromised that you’ve been made to feel you should go for something because another actor said ‘oh I don’t mind’, do not allow this situation to go back to this sense of coercion and that your power is taken away. You’ve got to make sure processes are put in place so you can do the job in a safe way and you’re not compromising your health.

Useful Links:

Further Reading:

About the panellists:

Ita O’Brien is an intimacy coordinator and movement director for film, television, and theatre. For the last six years Ita has been developing best practice when working with intimacy, scenes with sexual content, and nudity in film, TV, and theatre – the Intimacy On Set guidelines. Ita pioneered the role of Intimacy Coordinator, which is gaining adoption in leading production houses, including HBO, Netflix, and the BBC.

Marci Liroff has worked as a casting director, producer, and acting coach for the last 40 years. Marci was recently certified by Intimacy Professionals Association (IPA) and trained by the premier intimacy coordinator, Amanda Blumenthal, in Los Angeles. Credits include two indie features, a short film, web series, and she will start the tv series The Morning Show for Apple TV + once we all get back to work!

Image by Kristaps Grundst via Unsplash.