Emily Meade felt uneasy. The actress, who plays a porn star on HBO’s “The Deuce,” was about to film one of the most vulnerable scenes of her career – a graphic sequence in which she had to simulate oral sex. At one point in the lengthy scene, she was supposed to stand in the corner, half-nude, while other characters spoke.
“Reading that was a bit scary to me. I’m not only a little worried about the act of doing that, which is pretty vulnerable and potentially embarrassing, but especially with the internet, there’s going to be images of me, topless, pretending to give oral sex for the rest of my life,” she said.
So, she asked Alicia Rodis, an on-set intimacy coordinator and co-founder of Intimacy Directors International, to walk through the sequence with Uta Briesewitz, the episode’s director. Rodis helped Meade have a conversation about her concerns and discussed the possibility of using a robe.
As a result, Meade felt comfortable doing the scene as written because it “gave me the confidence to know we are all on the same page.” And in the end, the director decided not to show any close-up images of Meade during the act.
In the past, this wouldn’t have been much of a conversation — if it was a conversation at all — because most major productions didn’t work with intimacy coordinators.
With the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, however, structural changes in Hollywood are underfoot, as the industry shifts from the old, problematic phrase “that’s just how things are” to facing issues of consent, harassment and sexual assault head on. Those changes have found their way onto sets, which are increasingly staffed with intimacy coordinators – movement coaches who help choreograph intimate scenes with a focus on the actors’ safety.
“This in an industry where actors are told that ‘Yes, and’ is the only answer,” Rachel Flesher, an intimacy coordinator who worked on Netflix’s “GLOW,” said. “Not just ‘Yes.’ It’s ‘Yes, and I’ll do more, and I’ll do anything.’ And their hireability is based off their willingness to do whatever it takes.”
Rodis, who began her career as an actress, experienced that firsthand. She said she had her first kiss onstage at age 15 and did her first nude and simulated sex scenes when she was 18.
“I had some really negative experience that when I look back I realize were quite dangerous,” she said.
“I was told, ‘That’s just how the industry is. If you don’t do it, there are a thousand people behind you, and that’s just how it goes. You’re going to be harassed, mistreated, mishandled.’ And I accepted that.”
After hiring Rodis to work on “The Deuce,” HBO declared in October that it would require intimacy coordinators for all shows containing intimate scenes. Showrunner David Simon, also known for creating “The Wire” and “Treme,” told Rolling Stone he’d never work without intimacy coordinators again. Coordinators can also be found on sets for Netflix’s “Sex Education”and Amazon’s “Electric Dreams,” and Showtime employs them on a case-by-case basis, including on “The Affair.”
Much of the current discussion around intimacy coordinators began with Meade, who has acted since she was a teenager but only learned about intimacy coordinators after landing her role on “The Deuce,” a show that doesn’t back down from the reality of its subject matter: the prostitution and porn worlds of 1970s New York City.
Though she didn’t encounter any problems on the series, as filming went on, she began to think there should be an ambassador of sorts for sex and nude scenes, someone to ensure everything runs smoothly and give a voice to the actors – particularly those not as well known as herself.
Before filming the second season in 2018, she approached HBO with a request without fully knowing what she was requesting. But she knew that when there’s a child on set, a chaperone is required. Ditto a handler for an animal. And “when there is a stunt of any kind, even if it’s tiny, even if it’s crossing the street while a car is driving, there needs to be a stunt coordinator,” she said. “And yet with sexuality, there has been at most a ‘closed set,’ (which means) only the necessary crew members are allowed on set. But even that is a subjective concept that isn’t often very strictly paid attention to.”
Following Meade’s request, HBO immediately hired Rodis, and in her now-expanded role, Rodis is training new coordinators for HBO to handle both the physical and the emotional aspects of the job.
One role intimacy coordinators play is helping choreograph scenes with the actors’ boundaries at the forefront. That can mean anything, such as monitoring actors’ hand placements, ensuring they have certain types of genital barriers and guaranteeing that no one is pressured into nudity that wasn’t previously agreed upon.
They also speak with actors, crew members and directors to guarantee no one is emotionally hurt by a scene. For example, if someone has past trauma related to sexual assault, an intimacy coordinator will talk through the scene to make sure it isn’t triggering.
It often comes to down to communication, Rodis said.
“You might see a script that reads, ‘(The actors) are making passionate love on the sofa,’ ” she said. “So, what does that mean? What does that entail?”
Part of her job is “making sure conversations between the director and actors are had beforehand. Also making sure that we know exactly what the actors have agreed to nudity-wise, so they are not suddenly put in a position where they have to say ‘no’ in the moment, since there’s a huge power dynamic on sets.”
Adam Noble, an associate professor of acting and movement at the University of Houston who also works as an intimacy coordinator in theater, explained that the key is the job’s specificity. He compared the work to other roles on set: “I don’t feel comfortable teaching my performers, say, a dialect. In that case, I’m going to bring in a dialect coach to work with them, because that is their specialty. And I know they can handle that far better than I can.”
Tonia Sina, also a co-founder of Intimacy Directors International, was the first to publicly explore the position as a stand-alone job in her 2016 master’s thesis for Virginia Commonwealth University. But by then, several had been doing the work for more than a decade, albeit by happenstance.
Many in the initial wave, beginning about 15 years ago, including Rodis, Noble and Flesher, began as movement or combat choreographers. If there were issues with sex scenes, particularly those containing sexual violence, who better to do so than the person already working with the motions of actors’ bodies?
“I’d be called in to choreograph a fight for a show, and the director would say, ‘Hey, while you’re here, could you just look at this thing over here?’ And it would usually be a kiss, a fondle, a grope, something else that isn’t really fight choreography but since I’m the movement person, they would ask me to take a look at it,” Noble said.
Now that one of TV’s most prestigious companies, one credited with changing the television landscape time and time again, has announced that it will always employ intimacy coordinators, it’s likely other companies will follow. And it all started with Meade.
“All changes come from something being a problem first, and someone or people decide to change it. So this is actually the proudest thing I’ve ever been a part of in my career, being a part of that change,” Meade said.