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A Day in the Life: An Intimacy Co-ordinator for Screen and Stage

‘If you give us restrictions, we get to get creative.’

andrea bennett 23 Sep

andrea bennett is managing editor of The Tyee.

This past June, SAG-AFTRA, which represents film and television actors, radio personalities, stunt performers, voiceover artists and other media professionals, released an inaugural list of 40 intimacy co-ordinators from Canada, the United States, the U.K. and Australia.

Intimacy co-ordinators navigate situations in film and theatre where actors are asked to perform intimate scenes, like simulated sex.

The position was developed in response to the #MeToo movement, which activist Tarana Burke founded to end sexual violence — in particular sexual violence disproportionately impacting marginalized people, particularly Black women and girls.

While Burke initially founded the movement in the mid-2000s, it gained significant momentum in 2017, in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Harvey Weinstein. Soon, allegations were coming in steadily about many high-profile men in Hollywood, in politics, in media.

In 2006, artist Tonia Sina Campanella wrote her MFA thesis about staging intimacy in theatre; after the popularization of the #MeToo movement, the idea caught on — intimacy co-ordinators work to ensure clear and ongoing consent, and help to realize a director’s vision while ensuring actors feel comfortable.

I spoke with Amanda Cutting of Principal Intimacy Professionals about the role; four of Principal Intimacy’s six colleagues appeared on the recent SAG-AFTRA list, which Cutting says is just the beginning — many co-ordinators from outside the US didn’t realize they were eligible to apply.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does an intimacy co-ordinator do?

The Coles Notes version is that we are an actor’s advocate, a movement coach, and a go-between between production and the performer. We ensure that there's clear communication regarding intimate or heightened emotional themes. Because it's not just about the simulated intercourse — it could be emotionally vulnerable scenes, like birthing, a grieving scene, or places where we're in histrionics.

We speak with the director to get their vision and we assist the production by creating intimacy breakdowns. Then we're there to help coach the movement during rehearsal. This helps create a framework for what the expectations of the scene are. We ensure that what happens on the day works within the consent boundaries that the performers have set. We make sure that what we're designing works within the studio guidelines and their standards and practices for their given ratings.

So nothing too X-rated in a PG film?

Sometimes the scripts for an intimate scene can be quite visceral and visually written, and then really what we can show is a very PG-13 version, depending on which channellor and studio we are working for. Reading these visually written scenes can sometimes be daunting for a performer who sees this very explicit description and then is like, “I thought this was a PG-13 project.”

We clarify the vision and what is actually being captured on camera and will clarify with the performer. “All of the stuff that's described is giving you the context of what's happening. But what we're really going to see is you under a bed sheet. So everything's covered from the shoulders down, and there might be a gliding movement up. And that's about it.” Things like that are really where our communication and context come in to support the situation.

How many shows, movies and theatre productions have you worked on? Can you share a few names of productions you’ve worked on?

I’ve done over 333 days on set and have over 65 credits. I’ve worked on The Good Doctor, Upload seasons one and two, the Batwoman TV series, and Brand New Cherry Flavour, a sci-fi show that had the highest viewed intimacy scene on TikTok, among others.

What shape does an average day take for you?

There isn't a normal day for us, because we're the equivalent of a day player. A lot of the time, we're coming in for specific moments in the script and other times we are on for a full project supporting with research. We're not there every day shooting unless, of course, it’s quite an explicit show.

Usually we get there at least an hour, an hour and a half before the scene is being filmed. We touch base with the performers, to make sure that they don't have any other questions that have popped up since our last meeting with them. We'll review what garments they'll be wearing, so that it's all frontloaded, and reduces any anxiety and nerves. We'll touch base with the director to make sure that what we've already discussed and planned still works, or if there's anything else that we need to look at incorporating from a character or tonal standpoint.

A lot of the time with extensive intimacy scenes, there's a rehearsal day that's outside of the shoot day, to really allow the performers to feel super confident with the motions. It's not intuitive, because how to do it in real life is absolutely the opposite of what we do on film.

Then we'll be there for the shoot. We're usually right by the director, watching on the monitor, making sure that what we're supposed to see we're seeing, to offer any guidance on breathing or physical movement or changes of physical body, to help tell that story and to be accessible to the director for anything that they might want.

At the end of it, we make sure that the performers are out of their modesty barriers, we touch base with them to support them if they have any emotional bleed-off. It’s important that they've got closure at the end of the day — we're not just, you know, sending them to do the scene and then packing them home to have to deal with all of those feelings.

What kinds of barriers and nudity garments and prosthetics are used in your work? Is it part of your work to help actors figure out what might be right for them?

Absolutely. The garment suits the action. Sometimes they have to be custom fabricated, depending on what we're needing to see and not see. Intimacy co-ordinators also really work hard to make sure that there's gender-affirming garments, so that, if a person is transgender, they have the garment that affirms them, and allows them to feel comfortable.

The barriers can be anything from a silicone-padded barrier, or a thin yoga mat, to create a padding barrier between pubises. Our end goal is that we never have a pubis mound hit another pubis mound. We'll utilize some of the garments that have been around for ages, like sideless thongs (sails for internal genitalia). And for external genitalia, we call them hammocks.

The Modesty Shop, which is a local store in Vancouver, created a hammock which basically looks like a cup in a pocket for exterior genitalia. There are things like rocking balls, where we've taken yoga balls and deflated them slightly so that if you need an up and down movement, you can rock on or bounce on that without actually bouncing on your partner. I use a ton of yoga blocks, in order to help accommodate for height differences, because some people are really long in their body, while others are shorter but on screen they need to line up.

Our toolkit is like a smorgasbord of things that can be found at the dollar store, self-created pieces and your local Home Hardware as well. It depends on what our needs are. As creative collaborators we will always figure it out!

A lot of yoga equipment, I'm noticing!

There's a lot of yoga equipment, because it's meant to be in sweaty conditions. And it's padded, but it's not uncomfortable or abrasive.

What happens on set when an actor realizes they're not actually comfortable with a situation they anticipated beforehand would be OK?

First of all: that happens, you know. A person's consent changes daily, depending on what's happened the night before, or even what's going on in studio. So we frontload that that's okay. We want the performer to feel safe to voice that something isn’t working for them. Sometimes, because of the power dynamic in the room, they may not feel totally confident to say that, so they'll let us know that something's changed. Then we'll have a quick conversation with the director to say like, “hey, we're experiencing hitting some boundaries.”

When I talk with the performer, I'll ask them, “okay, well, what would feel good or work for you and the character in this moment? What would help you feel more confident?” We don't usually use the word “safe,” because we're working in brave spaces, it’s vulnerable being nude or doing a simulated act. But we'll ask them what can be modified. Sometimes, they need a little bit more clarification about what the shot or angle is. Other performers want to see what it’s going to look like in the frame. So we'll focus the camera, we'll take a quick picture or roll, we'll show it to them, and then we'll delete it. So that they see first-hand. Other situations could be they have an injury acting up. It's really about communication.

We figure out what works, then we bring those options to the director and talk, we work collaboratively and come together with a compromise that still tells the story. Ultimately, these types of changes in consent, or personal boundaries, is an area where, as intimacy co-ordinators, I feel we excel at. If you give us restrictions, we get to get creative. And sometimes that makes for better storytelling.

What has this work taught you about intimacy and consent?

I have a 13-year-old son. After being fully submerged in this for six years now, I very deliberately make time to talk about consent with my child, and how that can vary, and model it. I see the importance of, if someone says no, or my son says no, respecting that no, and then saying, “thank you for articulating your boundary.”

Unfortunately in the old style of actor training, performers were and are still taught to say “yes,” “yes,” “yes.” What we're trying to change in the arts industry is to make it a “No, however,” so that we're not forcing people to say “yes” in a blanket way, and by virtue of that ignore their boundaries. When trained to say “yes, and,” people will put themselves in uncomfortable situations, and then they'll have to backpedal their way out of it. That can be problematic, and the result of not being able to say “No” is that it will manifest in other ways, such as “I'm not feeling really well,” or an actual physical pulling away.

Another thing I've taken away from it is just how changeable consent can be on a day-to-day basis. It’s absolutely required to check in with the person on the day. You cannot assume that what someone was fine with yesterday or even an hour ago is fine at this exact moment.

What are some of the most joyful or meaningful or fun things you experience at work?

It’s rewarding to see someone who has boundaries have their boundaries be respected, and the story is still being told in a way that supports the director's vision. When everyone is coming back feeling energized by what we've created, that’s exciting. There's a lot of mentality that sex, or simulated sex on camera, only happens one way — it only happens in this position or that position. And there's so much variety there. It’s joyful to help advocate for diversity and accurate representation. So when we can support someone's identity, their character's identity, the storyline, their boundaries, and it makes beautiful art, that's very rewarding.  [Tyee]

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