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Intimacy Coaching: A Step Closer to Normalizing Consent Culture in the Film and Television Industry

Like many seeking the occasional escape from the harsh realities of a global pandemic, I have turned to binge-watching various movies and television shows (when I’m not hard at work being a full-time university student, that is). Among them was BBC’s Normal People, a four-time Emmy-nominated drama series starring Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones based on the critically acclaimed novel of the same name, written by Irish author Sally Rooney. Without revealing too much of the show’s premise to its potential viewers, the story follows the dysfunctional relationship between Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron from their high school in Carricklea, a rural town in Northern Ireland, to Trinity College Dublin, where their relationship develops alongside their transition from adolescence to young adulthood. Marianne is an unapologetically apathetic outcast belonging to a troubled affluent family, while Connell is the son of Lorraine, a housekeeper for Marianne’s family. He is an archetypal lovable jock, whose intelligence and sensitivity is unbeknownst to most. Together or apart, the two navigate the big city and face the hardships of young adulthood, all while circling the rigorous cycle of drifting apart and finding their way back to each other. Some important themes addressed in Normal People include mental health, emotional and physical abuse and class disparity. Nonetheless, beyond the simple-yet-profound storyline of the series and its beautiful visuals, not to mention the unfathomable fascination with Connell’s gold chain worn throughout the show (which, for the record, has its own Instagram page @connellschain, boasting 177K followers as of January 2021), I found myself in awe of the chemistry between Mescal and Jones, which provided a truthful depiction of young love which does not sugarcoat nor melodramatize the latter, which is hard to come by in both movies and films alike. Besides, it has the capacity to leave viewers convinced that Mescal and Jones aren’t really acting–they must be in love!

So, out of sheer curiosity, boredom, and appreciation for Paul Mescal, I browsed YouTube in hopes of finding Normal People interviews and online segments to further feed my obsession for the show. Turns out, in addition to natural chemistry and extraordinary acting skills (as can be seen in their audition) the pair had worked with an intimacy coach Ita O’Brien prior to and during filming. While the idea of such a function may seem absurd, this occupation is crucial in fostering a safe environment when practicing scenes containing nudity and/or intimate scenes in the film and television industry. 

O’Brien pioneered the “Intimacy on Set Guidelines" in 2017 following the plethora of sexual abuse stories revealed in the wake of the #MeToo movement, many among them linked to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. “We can no longer as an industry tolerate abusive predatory behavior,” said O’Brien, who has previously worked as an intimacy coach for the Netflix Original Sex Education, which addresses the notions of sexual awakenings, consent culture, as well as the repression of LGBTQIA* identities. In her text “Intimacy on Set Guidelines: Best Practice when working with Intimacy, Simulated Sex Scenes and Nudity,” she outlines that intimate scenes or those involving nudity must be filmed in a closed set with limited crew to respect the privacy of actors, and where possible, actors’ genitalia must be covered. Additionally, she emphasizes that actors must be well informed on their expectations and boundaries through constant communication with directors—who must be willing to compromise their creative visions for the well-being as well as the comfort level of their actors—and in the case of Normal People, the employment of an Intimacy Coordinator. This is where O’Brien came into the rescue and served as a sort of liaison between directors Lenny Abrahamson, Hettie MacDonald and the actors, who were made aware of all the implications of their role and rehearsed said scenes as though they were dance routines. That is to say, all intimate scenes were fully choreographed to ensure that there were no unwelcome surprises at the time of filming, as all parties were given the opportunity to establish boundaries prior to and during production and thus have given consent to performing said actions. 

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Aside from fostering a safe environment in film production, the use of an intimacy coach allows for meticulous, intentional choreography: critical in films or series depicting adolescents or young adults engaged in sexual activity, which, more often than not, ignore the practice of establishing mutual consent among partners. As a former dancer, O’Brien has a profound understanding of the relationship between bodily movements, character and mental state. Her apparent fluency in body language created a meaningful experience for viewers of Normal People, which tackles many different types of sexual relations among its characters, including the challenging execution of illustrating an abusive relationship. Namely, in a 7-minute scene (thus occupying a third of the duration of the episode!) portraying Marianne’s 'first time,' she tells Vanity Fair that her choreography was intended to: “show our teenage children, this is a positive representation of how we can depict that first time lovemaking, doing it respectfully with protection, having it flowing, checking on each other with consent. Sort of acknowledging the possible discomfort of losing one’s virginity. This is all from us just serving the beats. That’s what the choreography allows you to do. I actually love, in that scene, when they’re first naked.”

O’Brien also emphasizes that in granting the actors control over intimate scenes, they are then able to fully immerse themselves in their role. “I truly believe that when the work is put in place—when the actor’s personal body is taken care of—they know that they’re autonomous, they’re empowered, they’re listened to, their “no” is invited,” she tells VF. “This allows them to be free as the actor so that what you’re watching is the characters’ submission and the characters’ awkwardness.” Through her work, she is able to help purge actors of their concerns, anxieties and insecurities in order to optimize their performance.

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While O’Brien admits to having been refused work by directors unable to see the value of her profession, the actors of Normal People strongly advocate the practice of intimacy coaching. In an interview with BT TV, Mescal, whose NP stint served as his first introduction to filming intimate scenes, revealed that he could not imagine working without an intimacy coach, and stresses that the employment of such a crucial role is necessary in film and television. Edgar-Jones shares this same sentiment and praised O’Brien for making her experience filming such scenes with Mescal a positive one. 

This being said, in the constant pursuit of establishing consent culture in Hollywood, it is shocking that such a practice has yet to be standardized in film production. It has proven successful on other productions, such as Netflix’s latest addictive period drama Bridgerton; Phoebe Dynevor, who plays lead role Daphne Bridgerton, expressed that intimacy coaching made her ‘steamy’ scenes with co-star Regé-Jean Page a pleasure to film, not to mention a nice change from regrettable sex scenes she had done in the past (sans intimacy coach) in an interview with Us Weekly. Many renowned actors such as Sharon Stone have expressed the need for such a service in order to create a safe space on film sets, which has been obstructed by the lack of safe practices on far too many occasions. After all, intimacy coaching should be integral to filming productions with sexual content in the same way a dance cannot be executed without step-by-step choreography, as it would ease the process of practicing their craft through diminishing the anxieties and fears associated with acting. In a profession that demands such vulnerability, the presence and assistance of an intimacy coordinator should be normalized in the entertainment industry not only as a preventative measure for sexual abuse in the workplace but also as a tool for actors to realize their true potential.

To conclude with words from the remarkable woman herself, O’Brien shares with VF, “I myself have just grown in my appreciation of the human form. Lovemaking is a pinnacle of human connection. What I hope is that there’ll be more intimate content that shows the beauty of our loving. I have the joy of actually being able to support creating more of those scenes, including Normal People. We’re able to show better intimate content that really honors [a] beautiful, natural, normal part of who we are as human beings. It should be in our art.”

Information obtained from:

https://www.itaobrien.com/intimacy-on-set-guidelines.html

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/05/normal-people-sex-scenes-intimacy-coordinator-interview

https://www.bt.com/tv/drama/normal-people-bbc-paul-mescal-daisy-edgar-jones-cast-interview-sex-scenes

https://www.usmagazine.com/entertainment/news/bridgerton-star-says-intimacy-coordinator-helped-film-sex-scenes/

Inez is a fourth-year student majoring in Langue et littérature françaises (traduction) and minoring in History and Hispanic Studies in hopes of becoming a secondary school teacher. When she is not busy studying, working or revising articles for Her Campus McGill, she enjoys running, finding great fashion deals and spending time with her friends.
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