Let’s Talk About Simulated Sex: Intimacy Coordinators Two Years On
Courtesy of HBO (2); HULU

Let’s Talk About Simulated Sex: Intimacy Coordinators Two Years On

The field is booming, yet still faces resistance from some skeptical creators as well as representation and credentialing issues: "Anybody can come off the street and say 'I'm an intimacy coordinator.'"

"I love those moments when you start shooting and the director says, 'OK, I think we got it,' and then everyone, including the actors, starts laughing," says intimacy coordinator Yarit Dor (Carnival Row), who worked in fight and movement direction before training in intimacy. "We're obviously very serious and professional, but there's also a need for that moment of realization that we're playing pretend sex, we're wearing these weird garments on our bits and it's funny. And when you see actors having a bit of a laugh, it just relieves this tension around a very sensitive scene."

Those light interactions have sometimes proven elusive when filming intimate scenes; stories of embarrassment, confusion, exploitation and at times even assault have been shared, particularly after the #MeToo movement gained prominence in Hollywood. That watershed moment led HBO to become the first network to commit to hiring intimacy coordinators — choreographers for scenes that involve nudity, simulated sex or sexual content. Netflix, Hulu, Starz and Amazon soon followed, leading to 23 Emmy-nominated scripted programs in 2020 that credit intimacy coordinators (they include shows you'd suspect, like Euphoria, as well as less overtly sexy fare like Watchmen and Succession). Now there are an estimated 50 to 60 trained coordinators, who have completed programs based primarily in Los Angeles, New York and the U.K., working across the globe.

While the proliferation of the role is certainly a net positive for safety and comfort on set, interviews with dozens of intimacy coordinators and those who work with them show that the boom has also come with growing pains, from wary creators who view them as on-set buzzkills to a lack of diversity and inconsistent training. And, of course, shooting during a pandemic has introduced a fresh set of challenges.

As defined by SAG-AFTRA, an intimacy coordinator is "an advocate, a liaison between actors and production … in regard to nudity and simulated sex." Most of their work is done during the shoot, choreographing intimate action, monitoring closed sets and working with costume on modesty garments and prosthetics. But coordinators are also involved in preproduction with filmmakers, planning the types of touching and exposure that will be permitted and managing nudity riders and actor concerns.

Though intimacy coordinators have been around in the world of live theater for decades, the role was popularized for film and television after Harvey Weinstein's sexual misconduct became public in 2017 and made Hollywood the focal point of Tarana Burke's #MeToo movement. The first show to announce its employment of an intimacy coordinator was HBO's second season of The Deuce, about New York City sex workers in the '70s, which filmed in 2018.

"One of the producers called me and said, 'Can you come in for an interview? We don't know what we need, but we need something,' " recalls coordinator Alicia Rodis. Previously a stunt performer and fight director, Rodis had begun choreographing scenes of sexual assault onstage. In 2015 she and Tonia Sinia founded Intimacy Directors International (now Intimacy Directors and Coordinators, or IDC) to expand into film and television. When, in October 2018, HBO announced that all shows with intimate scenes would be staffed by an intimacy coordinator, Rodis remembers saying, "There's me and Ita O'Brien in the U.K., so you better hire someone to train people and to set the protocols."

They did. Rodis has been the network's in-house coordinator for two and a half years, working on shows like Watchmen while building out a training program. Netflix released its first show crediting an intimacy coordinator, Sex Education, in January 2019.

Still, reluctance by creators to use coordinators persists, says Dor. "As with any new role, there is a fear of having to change how you work. That's why some shows [mistakenly] treat an IC more like a 'health and safety officer' hired just to oversee but not to contribute or collaborate with the director and actors."

Dor adds that taking some responsibility off filmmakers' plates is often what changes minds. "Filmmakers have had to hold the responsibility of checking in with the actors [on intimacy concerns] while also being the director that looks at the monitor in a very artistic way," she says. "That's a lot of pressure."

Dead to Me showrunner Liz Feldman shares Dor's view; over the summer she told THR that working with an intimacy coordinator "was a bit of a relief. We called ours in for a scene with two teenagers. We had them do a make-out scene in the back of a car and we knew it had to get pretty physical." Feldman explains, "You write something on the page, and you're like, 'Oh, that's going to be great. It'll be really sexy.' And then you're there on the day, and you realize, 'I'm basically asking these people to become incredibly intimate with someone that they've just met and to do it over and over again in front of a crew.' And as the showrunner, you do start to feel a bit like a pimp. So to have a person whose job it is to help you facilitate that takes a lot of that pimp pressure off."

Many filmmakers hold preconceived ideas about what a coordinator does before working with one.

"People often confuse my role with HR," says Amanda Blumenthal (Euphoria), founder of Intimacy Professionals Association, a training program in Los Angeles. "That's not my job. I'm not here to tell you what you can and can't say." Coordinator Elle McAlpine (Brave New World) says, "When we go on set, we're sometimes called the fun police. It's not about that; it's about educating people about this work."

Ed Guiney, executive producer of Hulu's Normal People, which used an intimacy coordinator, says he was "concerned that an intimacy coordinator might interfere in the creative relationship between the cast and the director." But he came away from the experience pleasantly surprised. "It takes a lot of the awkwardness out of shooting these scenes and really frees the actors up to properly be in the moment," he says.

During a THR roundtable this summer, showrunner Greg Daniels joked about his first collaboration with an intimacy coordinator for his Amazon show Upload. "I assumed she was going to put some maturity in there and ask everyone to tone it down, and she was just thumbing through the Kama Sutra, like, 'How about this? What if we did that?'" His experience proved to be a positive one.

Sources says when negative experiences with coordinators do occasionally occur, it's typically when someone underqualified slips through the doors without proper training. "It's such a new role that they're sort of making it up," The Great showrunner Tony McNamara told THR this summer. "There was this constant interruption that the actors would get annoyed by because they're always being asked, 'Are you OK?' in the middle of things. Our actors would be like, 'Can you just let us do it?' "

McNamara recalled an uncomfortable moment when a coordinator was attempting to choreograph intimacy with star Nicholas Hoult. "At one point, one of our intimacy coordinators said, 'This is how gorillas do it,' and got up on the bed … And I was like, 'If I did that, this show would be shut down.' So we had to have conversations about where the boundaries for intimacy coordinating were and what the actors needed to actually do their jobs and feel safe."

"Anybody can come off the street and say 'I'm an intimacy coordinator,' " says O'Brien (Normal People, I May Destroy You), the pioneering U.K.-based intimacy coordinator who was a dancer and actor until transitioning to movement direction in 2007. O'Brien started teaching intimacy coordination in 2017, and, a few months later, after the Weinstein scandal broke, founded her training program, Intimacy on Set.

"The greatest threat to this new role is people who may have the best of intentions, but are attempting to break in without the proper training," Rodis explains. "People already can be skeptical of a new role that they might feel is threatening, and if you put someone in there who doesn't have the right experience or temperament you have a recipe for even more issues."

Rodis says she has "had to intervene on productions when someone who doesn't understand set etiquette or power dynamics oversteps or under-steps … causing everyone to lose confidence in the intimacy coordinator role itself."

Blumenthal, like Rodis, stresses the importance of screening "beyond looking at a nicely made website; it's finding out what their background is, what their on-set experience is, checking references."

In January, SAG-AFTRA published guidelines regulating the practice. "There was no common understanding of what the role meant," says national executive director David P. White. SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris says her union took the lead because "our members are the ones who are in front of the camera doing the hyper-exposed work."

There are now several training programs across the U.S. and O'Brien's program in the U.K., all of which have founders who work with SAG-AFTRA regularly. "There's a lot of education around consent and boundaries," says Mia Schachter, co-founder of the Centaury Co. training program with partner Yehuda Duenyas, who has been working in intimacy coordination on stage since 2007. "Part of my training was going to a BDSM dungeon," says Schachter. "I took a Flogging 101 class. The way that they talk about consent is so clear, and everything is negotiated ahead of time; you don't add or change anything once you're in the scene."

After a summer of racial and social justice reckoning in Hollywood, the lack of diversity within the intimacy coordinator community is now being addressed.

"Making sure that there is representation in the room is incredibly important," says Sasha Smith, who began acting onstage as a child, transitioned to intimacy coordination from stage combat after college and is now the director of theater/live performance at IDC. "As a Black woman, I'm always an advocate for diversity and inclusion … not just BIPOC but also disabled bodies and trans bodies, because we're all humans who deserve to have these stories."

The Centaury Co. program is specifically focused on bringing diverse talent to the industry. "The majority of our field is white," notes Schachter. "Part of our work is talking about how people in different cultures show intimacy and love and care, and how they talk about bodies, about cultural stereotypes around sex and gender."

After being staffed on HBO's Insecure, Schachter sought out cultural training from sex educator Cameron Glover, who developed a six-week program for them on Black sexuality — a gap in intimacy training that Schachter had been aware of for a while. "I was working on a set with a white woman director and two Black actors," they say. "The director asked the male actor to run his fingers through the female actor's hair. She had very tight curls, and that's just not a way that Black people show care and intimacy and love. It was very awkward."

Schachter's partner, Duenyas, adds that the need for cultural awareness applies beyond racial education. "One of my biggest pet peeves in terms of sexuality displayed in media is we really only see one to three types of sexuality, typically heteronormative," he says.

As with most diversity conversations, accessibility plays a significant role. "Training is extremely expensive," Dor notes. Programs can take three to 15 months and cost up to $15,000. "It doesn't allow for people from [different] socioeconomic statuses."

Meanwhile, the pandemic has forced coordinators to pivot. At the end of August, Directors UK, a British organization representing more than 7,000 screen directors, released new COVID-era guidelines for filming intimate scenes. "The pandemic has created new hurdles, but it has not fundamentally changed the stories we want to tell or the way we want to tell them," the document reads. While noting that there is not a single solution for all circumstances, Directors UK suggests reworking intimate scenes when possible and allowing more preparation and rehearsal to ensure that safety measures are being met.

David Thackeray, who works with O'Brien and McAlpine at Intimacy on Set, explains how coordinators have been problem-solving intimacy that performers aren't comfortable with because of COVID-19 concerns. "A kiss on the lips, [an actor] didn't want to do that," he says. "So what if we kiss on the neck or other body parts? It's just retelling the story, you still get the same outcome, but it's sometimes a better, more intimate outcome."

Along with scene adjustments, there are new procedures born out of COVID-19 restrictions that intimacy coordinators hope become permanent, like video meetings. "We used to just pick up the phone, but it's wonderful to be able to see each other's faces before you go on set," says McAlpine. "Also, it starts conversations early. Even if you're on a different job and we don't start for three weeks, you can call me. There's no excuse now."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.