When it comes to directly overseeing nudity, simulated sex and other intimate scenes on film and TV sets, Hollywood flew by the seat of its undone pants for more than a century.
Rather incredibly, Hollywood had survived since silent films without intimacy professionals on-hand to supervise sexual situations, which have similar dynamics to fight scenes, stunts and dance numbers. Actors used to go by feel, working exclusively with directors, producers and co-stars to perform in situations that even with the best of intentions could create discomfort.
But in wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that sprung up in response to Harvey Weinstein, Brett Ratner and other sordid tales of power imbalance run amok, Hollywood’s had a long-overdue wake-up call thanks to a woke world. In fact, it should be said that when it comes to protecting the sexual well-being of its performers, Hollywood is likely entering its golden era.
Enter the role of intimacy coordinator, one of the fastest-growing professions in the entertainment industry. It’s a relatively new-ish role championed by a group of people passionate about eliminating gray areas from situations that should be black and white.
Alicia Rodis is the intimacy coordinator for HBO, a co-founder of Intimacy Directors International, and on the executive team at Intimacy Directors & Coordinators. She helped pioneer the role of intimacy coordinator and has worked on a plethora of TV series for the pay-cabler including The Deuce (S2 and S3), Lovecraft Country (2020) and The Undoing (2020), amongst others.
If you’ve seen any of those shows, you know there are more than a few compromising positions struck, which makes Rodis’ role vital as someone who ensures worker safety, while consulting on protocols relating to intimate scenes. She also trains and screens other “IC’s” working on HBO sets.
Recently, Rodis and I caught up via Zoom to discuss the training, dynamics and newfound demand for this popular profession, which now includes roughly 30 intimacy coordinators that Rodis says are always in demand. Even with production numbers down given the global pandemic.
Here’s what she had to say.
First, please tell us exactly what an intimacy coordinator is…
An intimacy coordinator is someone who works on film and TV sets. I am a movement coach; I am a liaison between actors and production; and I’m an advocate for actors and everyone on set during the filming of intimate scenes. Anything from a kiss to a handhold to full-blown simulated sex. Most of the time, I’m brought in for nudity and simulated sex specifically, but I’m also brought in for other things along those lines as well.
I know you were involved with pioneering this role… can you share how that came about?
Around 2015, I met someone named Tonia Sina, who had created something called intimacy choreography. She was the first one to coin the phrase. Other people were doing choreography for sex scenes – it’s not a totally new thing – but she was at the intersection of consent and choreography. So, her, myself and another individual [Siobhan Richardson] got together and created a non-profit called Intimacy Directors International. We started doing research, fielding questions and interviews with directors, actors, choreographers, social workers and therapists about how we could honor intimate scenes and do them to the best of our ability and create a space that was safe for them.
As we’d all experienced as performers, there was very little real conversation around these scenes. Lots of room for mishaps, misinterpretations, downright harassment and potential assault.
How did you put shape around everything that you and your team envisioned?
We started doing workshops. I come from a fight choreography and acting background so I was very much used to working on shows and choreographing sexual assault scenes, etc. We started to get attention – we created something called the pillars, our roadmap to how to work out an intimate scene. Then Me Too happened and Donald Trump was elected president. Really those were the catalysts of what pushed us to the forefront – because then people started looking for our work and recognizing it for the value that is has.
Walk us through an example of a scene you’ve worked on at HBO.
I might as well use The Deuce as an example – and I love that this is for Casting Networks because so many people go through Casting Networks to get hired onto scenes with intimacy that I think it’s so important that everyone gets this information (actors, agents, etc.).
Take a scene from The Deuce, where we have three background actors portraying porn actors and one series regular that’s also portraying a porn actor and then someone like Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s playing the director of the porn scene… it’s a show within a show.
So for that, it would always start with an intimacy meeting. I would meet with the director, the executive producer, casting people and get exactly what the director’s vision was for this scene – what they were going to be asking these actors to do. If it was nudity, exactly how much nudity so I could craft the language of the nudity riders for them and so casting knows we’re asking for nudity above the waist… and that that’s exactly what it is and it’s not going to change.
Or we’re asking these two people to simulate oral sex – this person giving, this person receiving and making sure that was in the casting notice. Even other context they’d need to know, like “Maggie Gyllenhaal is playing the director in this” – so knowing a celebrity’s going to be working with them while they’re nude is important information someone might want to know.
How does it work on the day of shooting?
On the day of, I check in with everyone ahead of time. I make sure everyone is continuing [their] consent. I check in with the director to make sure nothing has changed. If something has, how’s the conversation going to go. And then when we get into the scene. On The Deuce, there were a lot of times I’d give choreography, or movement direction, or simulated sex to performers – or assist the director with because I have research of the language about how to talk about intimate scenes – and how to sell something that you’re not actually doing, just like in the fight world.
What kind of training is involved in becoming an intimacy coordinator?
One, you have to understand how to choreograph intimate scenes – masking techniques, how to communicate with actors and non-actors because sometimes you get non-actors and models. So, communication skills are really number one. Then, you have to have the language for how to talk about sex, nudity, etc., in a clinical term so it’s not off-putting. You have to also have a full awareness of consent and consent laws and know how to advocate for someone, LGBTQIA+ and when it comes to race and ED&I (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion). Also, Mental Health First Aid in case someone is going through a crisis or ends up getting triggered or traumatized during a scene like this. You know, our actions have consequences – sometimes your body gets into a position and you can get into a rough place. Then, just having on-set experience so the intimacy coordinator knows how to work on a set – the hierarchy, set etiquette, and who to ask for what.
In a previous interview, I saw that you said it was best to get “consent during casting.” Can you shed light on what you meant by that exactly?
Consent is really what it’s all about. That’s the number one thing that brings intimacy coordinators onto a set – to make sure things are consensual. And you can’t consent if you don’t have the specific information; if you’re not informed. I like to use the term from Planned Parenthood: F.R.I.E.S. So it has to be: freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, specific.
If you go down the list and everything is there, you’re probably going to be okay.
What’s the best way to eliminate miscommunication at the casting level?
When I’m helping with the casting notices when I’m working on a show, I’ll say, “We are looking for a performer to play a ‘70s porn actor who will be performing with nudity above the waist and simulating anal sex with a male performer.” That’s specific. If it’s not on the casting notice, at least it’s a conversation. It’s got to be put out there.
Any advice for nervous actors who’ve been cast to do risqué things on what they should ask – or fight – for before closing a deal?
One, I would say ask for an intimacy coordinator. That is insurance. That’s knowing that there will be conversations that will be had and it’s not you who has to have them. You’re not being forced to be the only one who has to advocate for yourself in situations when your agent is not necessarily on set with you. If you can’t get an intimacy coordinator put into your contract, or ask for one or demand for one to be on set with you – especially if you’re doing something like a TV series where they’re continuing to write more for it and you don’t know what’s going to come up there – you can always have a good-faith conversation with the director and executive producer ahead of time. At the end of the day, know that you have a right to say ‘no.’ Two, set your specifics ahead of time as well. “I’m okay with doing nudity and simulated sex, but no genitals and no rear at any point.” Get really specific clinically about what it’s not going to be.
You should be getting more money for it. Just like people get stunt bumps… and you should have control over how it goes and what it is you need to stop in case you or someone else is in danger.
What’s the most common mistake a greener actor has made on a set when shooting intimate scenes (or doing nudity) that an intimacy coordinator could help prevent?
I have had actors come in for the first time that are very green that think they have to bring their sexuality, and their entire selves. Part of it is just our culture – our culture in the world, our culture in Hollywood, and what gets a lot of press is going method and what not. That’s not what anyone is asking for. They’re asking for you to come in and portray something.
I’ve even had performers say, “Oh, I thought we were going to, like, do it.” There are no actual sexual acts on set. And I understand why they get confused given what we see in the media. Also, SAG-AFTRA only this year put it in writing in the contracts: No actual sexual acts can be performed on set.
This is the first time that’s happened – that this specific language has appeared?
Yes, it was something we found three years ago when we were doing this. I’m like, Wait, I don’t see it actually saying that. And I had actors from one and two on the call sheet tell me, “I was pressured to have sex with my co-worker on camera.” We didn’t do it, but I’ve been pressured before.
I imagine there have been some directors that get caught up in the moment, who want to push actors to see what they can get out of a scene. Ever had to step in at that moment and say, “No, no, no… cut.”
Yeah, I have. There are boundaries that the actors have that if we’re going past that boundary, I’m going to stop and say something if that actor does not. And there are things that are beyond my boundary. I can’t be a part of it if people are actually going to be trying to be doing something like that on set… Often, it’s a miscommunication or misunderstanding or something’s happening where I start to see the actor getting really nervous or uncomfortable. I find the least invasive way to say, “Can we talk about this moment? Can we take a second here?” If we are all good, great… and if we’re not, we have an out.
What’s your advice to actors on how to handle this part – if things don’t go according to script?
What I tell actors is: You always have an exit. You can always stop. You can always say, “Stop. Cut. I’m so sorry, hold on one moment.” You have a right to do that because intimate scenes – I view them a lot like fight scenes or stunts – it’s high-risk work that you’re putting yourself in.
Are there any “new technologies” that you’ve been involved with developing or anything you think needs to happen to make it safer for actors doing scenes that could trigger unwelcome sexual stimulation?
There are modesty garments and there are barriers, which can be thin neoprene or silicon or something that is between the actor’s genitals that’s not just a piece of cloth. If you put your body in a certain situation, it’s going to respond in a certain way… there’s no shame in it and even just naming it is often something I end up doing in these scenes. Saying if there’s a vascular reaction, regardless of what kind of genitals you have, having a barrier there can make you feel more comfortable and your partner feel more comfortable. I often work with wardrobe about what the actors are okay showing and then what it is we can work on. Often, we’ll be putting our heads together and they’ll mock-up or sew up something. There are even companies that have created better barriers for intimate scenes.
Any tips for actors on shooting intimate scenes in the age of COVID?
Honestly, two people shouting at each other in a closed room can be more dangerous than shooting a sex scene right now, if we’re going by COVID standards. Everyone is tested so much. If you’re getting tested three times a week – and some shows I’m on people are getting tested five times a week – that’s your safest bet. What I suggest is that if you’re doing rapids – to make sure you do like two rapid tests before you have the intimate scene to make absolutely sure.
Are there any protocols you’d like to see put into place – that aren’t quite there yet?
At HBO, we have a closed-set memo attached to the call sheet. When it’s a closed set, we have a safety meeting and specifically say who it is that should be on set. It’s in the memo. I think that is something I’d like to see other studios and our unions put in place. Because we did get a better version of a closed set in our SAG-AFTRA protocols this year in the most recent theatrical/television contract, but I’d like to see it get even more specific. Another thing I’d like to see is intimacy coordinators written in and have a contract with SAG-AFTRA because most of us are SAG performers – I’m a SAG performer. We are there often helping represent and protect SAG performers – so having a SAG contract for intimacy coordinators is a big thing.
I look forward to the day when we hear an intimacy coordinator thanked in an Oscar or Emmy speech, which could be coming if it hasn’t happened already.
I don’t think it has, but hey, I’m happy we’re there and happy we’re invited to the party.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.