We are in a rehearsal space near Waterloo. The occasional train thunders and shakes our space. We are in a room where actors in yoga type outfits are howling like dogs then slapping their bodies like seals on the shiny, blonde wooden floor. Then they growl like big cats and culminate by bouncing and shrieking like monkeys.
Intimacy coach O’Brien is guiding this workshop. Later she will instruct the participants how to incorporate these animalistic movements into simulated sex scenes – the more they are animal, the less they are human, the less post-traumatic stress will be involved. Plus if you can slap like a seal and bounce like a monkey, you’re basically mimicking some very lively sex.
O’Brien is a woman with sad, sparkling eyes and a gentle but controlled disposition. She tells me, “it’s not about censorship. It’s about safety.” When I first heard of Ita O’Brien, Britain’s first intimacy director for stage, film and television, I thought surely she is a product of post Weinstein hysteria in the industry. Before Weinstein, former impressario and guru of The Oscar there was tacit approval that sexual predatory was just part of what went on. He did not create the culture but his downfall ended it. No one said anything about casting couches, impromptu sex scenes, on and off camera. No one mentioned the word abuse until everybody did. After Weinstein was exposed, the bigger picture was this was an industry where it was easy for the powerful to take advantage of the vulnerable – a little like life itself.
After Weinstein’s behaviour was outed, many others followed. Kevin Spacey was condemned for bullying, for paedophilia. Applauded television hosts like Charlie Rose was written off as a sex pest. Even the unlikely multi-national treasure Dustin Hoffman came under the cosh. The abused took the stage and encouraged others to speak out and the #metoo generation was formed, urging for rules to change.
O’Brien with her background in movement and her desire for carefully choreographed safe sex scenes with no improvised surprises, seemed to be the perfect navigator to chart the unrippled waters of the new climate. But far from being a product of this climate, she’s merely seized her moment.
She has been campaigning for guiding principles for actors and directors working with simulated sex scenes and intimacy since 2015. At this point she didn’t have an agent and only Carey Dodd would take her on. Together they campaigned to get her proposals to equity and now she is the hottest client on their list. Everyone wants her. Her plans are now catapulted into the spotlight and into Equity and into the Managers Association and into workshops in the hope they will be adopted as guidelines for best practice.
Weinstein-gate was a tsunami and suddenly O’Brien and her work is riding on the crest of that towering wave. But what exactly is her work? I feared for sure it would be censorial and it would revolve around distance, cover ups and no kissing. Or maybe that 1950s movie kissing with no tongues. Actually it’s way more intriguing.
She points out that productions always have a stunt director who helps coordinate the movements away from physical danger so intimate scenes should have the same. Her argument is if the actors feel more comfortable they will perform better.
A few of her rules for best practice are: “Intimate scenes including nudity should be identified upfront by producers and directors. Any scenes with simulated sex should be discussed before signing the contract and she argues that it’s important to “establish boundaries around areas of concern, keep the actors personal intimate expression out of the rehearsal room and focus on the role in the scene, the beats of the scene, the characters physical expression of intimacy by exploring animal mating rhythms,” and she says it should be standard practice to agree to areas of physical touch – no surprises.
As more and more of the recent abusive practices unravelled, we learned of for instance an alarming practice for the movie Traffic – where without notice actors were asked to be involved in sex abuse scenes. Some suffered post-traumatic stress. O’Brien believes that there is a direct correlation between abuse in the audition and on set to the kind of abuse that young actors allegedly suffered from Weinstein and the like. They obviously felt threatened if they didn’t perform something unspeakable they wouldn’t get the part.
O’Brien’s workshop is about giving young actors the confidence to stand up for themselves and with those I talked to later it seems to be a valuable education. O’Brien’s background is in dance and movement as well as acting. She recently worked as a movement director on Humans training the feet of the actors so they could move like synths. She’s moved from training people to be robots to training them to have safe sex on screen. She says, “I see helping the actors with intimacy is helping them to open out rather than close up.”
Does she mean like foreplay? Getting the connection? She laughs nervously. I overhear one of the actors talking about how much the seal movement has helped him with his upcoming sex scene. He’s demonstrating as his body flops on the floor – slap, slap. O’Brien continues and opens up about her own personal relationship with abuse.
“In 2009 I devised a play (April’s Fool) which was about sexual abuse in our society. I thought if I’m going to ask an actor to play this I want to make sure that they are safe. When abuse happens some of your voice gets cut off and I wanted to use that healthily. It’s not just that you can’t speak. It’s part of your personality gets cut out. We get stifled. So I wanted to create a container and an ensemble warm up that’s open, present and grounded.”
I notice her own voice gets quiet when she’s talking about being stifled and I sense she is talking through her own personal pain. “My story was of a girl who was abused by an uncle and the fallout from that which the family felt. It was just a Catholic family story…It was my story.”
So the abuse happened to her? “Yes. If it’s alright I’d rather not explore it further and go into the detail of what happened… but I can talk about how it affected me – that is I have a sense of and a reason to keep myself safe. And I know how abuse affects you. It has ripples through your life. I’ve done a lot of work on personal healing from that but I have an awareness and understanding to bring to this work.”
Indeed, she channels that pain into helping others. We weave back to that important correlation – being abused in a sex scene or audition and the wider aspect of abuse within the industry.
“Yes of course it is linked. That’s what I thought when I did my piece in 2009. In 2010 there was all the abuse of the Catholic priests and then Jimmy Saville. Abuse has been inherently part of our society. Things are so bad now that there is a call for change. Enough is enough… A relief in a way.
She starts to give examples of historic abuse within the industry and how the actors were not given support or guidelines. “For instance, if you do an audition for, say, Romeo and Juliet and you know there’s going to be sexual content have the conversation with the director before you take the job about their vision about how they want the intimacy to be portrayed and then you can agree or not.
Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris was one of the worst cases. She was only 17, a minor. The details of the sex scene was not in the script. Marlon Brando and Bertolucci came up with the butter/anal scene idea themselves on the day. She initially said she didn’t want to do it. Brando said ‘it’s only a film’ and she says now ‘I felt abused and raped by them.’ The thing with sex scenes is that you are using your body intimately and that has an impact unless it’s done safely. People can have shame and emotional injury.”
She insists that this is not about tampering with the director’s vision – merely about clarifiying. Schneider never worked in a big budget international movie again. She said afterwards, “During the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and Bertolucci.”
More recently Nicole Kidman talks about the violent scene in Sky Atlantic’s compulsive seven part serial Big Little Lies where she is essentially raped by her husband. The relationship is one where outwardly Kidman is the powerful lawyer and her husband is addicted to sexually demeaning her. This culminates in a shocking scene where Kidman’s character who has previously seemed ambivalent to the S&M, can’t fight back anymore. There is brutal scene which leaves her unable to fight back, curled in a ball on the floor. And Kidman says she felt “exposed, vulnerable and deeply humiliated.”
Another example was in BBC’s The Night Manager. There was a scene with Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Debicki where after months of sexual tension he finally took her and had her against a wall. The scene got a lot of attention because of Hiddleston’s buttocks being exposed and he had many admirers at the time but Debicki said how she found the scene awkward. She said that they did it in one take, everyone looked around and left and we met at the tea caddy as if it never happened. According to O’Brien, that means one moment of improvisation sent Debicki into a place of shame and denial.
Basically O’Brien is saying that safe onscreen sex has to come with no surprises. Then she says, “If you have a dance scene you have a choreographer because you don’t want someone twisting their ankle. If you have a simulated sex scene there should be the same sort of guidelines. Sculpted in a safe way with agreement and consent of all involved.” But doesn’t that mean you’re censoring the director? “No. If there’s a fight scene there will be a stunt director. They’ll talk about their vision. They’ll talk about how they want it sculpted and the stunt director will choreograph it making sure the techniques are safe and the director is absolutely being served.”
I wonder about spontaneity and haven’t some of the most impactful scenes in movies come from the actors imagination and improvisation on the spot? I wonder if Daniel Day Lewis has ever been told how to sculpt a sex scene?
“When you’re asking an actor to do something that’s just improvised they don’t know personally if they’re safe so they can’t be artistically vulnerable. What you want is that the actor really serves the emotional content that’s required. If you sculpt a scene then it allows the actor to be spontaneous within that boundary. It allows the actor to really give themselves fully to the emotional content because they know what’s happening is agreed and consented to.”
So improvisation is dangerous? “Yes because you feel not safe.” Does she think that there are actors who carry around shame because of the scenes they have been forced to do? “I have run these workshops now for over 3 years and I start by asking people to share their experiences and I would say that in a group, most people have had unpleasant experiences and only a couple would have had safe experiences. This is the proportion.”
The more O’Brien is opening up the more complexities I see. You can’t dismiss her as a censor. She is a huge fan of one of the most controversial directors of sexual content Paul Verhoeven who is renowned for his visceral sex scenes. He won last year’s Golden Globe for the sexually explicit Elle where Isabelle Huppert was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as a post-feminist rape victim. O’Brien is a fan because he personally story boards all of the sex scenes in advance which is extremely rare in the industry. “He talks very pragmatically about vaginas and nipples so there’s no confusion, no titillation or infantalisation. He does detailed story boards and everyone knows what’s being asked of them.”
Verhoeven says, “All the actors knew exactly what they were going to do. All sex scenes in my movies are precisely choreographed. There is no question of, do I lick her nipple or not? Do I go down on her? How far? And what do you see? Every movie is already clear before we start because I talk with my actors and actresses in a very open way about what would be visible, where the camera will be, and what the actions are. I do it in extreme detail, using words like ‘nipple’ and ‘vagina’ continuously to make absolutely clear to the actors how we’re going to shoot that scene, and when we shoot it we really stick to the script. I don’t come to the actors later with additional details that are perhaps unacceptable. It should be clear in the script what’s happening.”
From the actors I talk to today, this kind of clarity is indeed rare. The very beautiful Serena Jennings graduated from drama school two years ago and was attracted to the workshop because she liked the idea of protection. Since graduating I’ve done various projects with sex scenes – one where I had to masturbate. Often you were just thrown in and expected to perform without having boundaries. There was another sex scene in the same web series about a couple having problems in the bedroom. “I knew it was there but I had no one talk to talk about it. I did carry shame from the masturbation scenes.”
On another project she had to do an improv with a director that she wasn’t comfortable with. “He said ‘take off as many clothes as you can until you feel you can’t go any further.’ And then afterwards he said ‘so, you got down to bra and pants. You won’t really understand the character because you didn’t strip fully’ and for me that was utterly haunting. That’s why I was attracted to having an intimacy coach, guidelines. It was the most uncomfortable five minutes of my life.”
As the workshop progresses the actors split up into groups and are given various intimate text to work with. Swapping the roles of actor and director to discuss the approach, after that they map it out with words like ‘I touch you here’. Then they do it just physically so you see the seals, the monkeys and the dogs panting right back in there. Once it is compartmentalised it loses its potential power as a catalyst to shame and disgust. One text being worked on is a scene from a play called Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shephard and Patti Smith. It’s about a couple who never leave their room. Eat sleep and have sex constantly.
It’s being directed by Miriam Lucia, an actor/director and actor/trainer who runs the Clerkenwell Actors Studio. She has an elegance and composure that you’d not want to mess with and was working with her actors to create a sense of trust. “I found it rather liberating to use words like roll and thrust. We have incorporated the animal work into the scene of the play so it’s a great way in. I know that actors clam up and freeze because they are caught up in wanting to please and wanting not to make trouble and feeling ashamed.
If they don’t want to do the sex scene they feel someone else will do it and they’ll lose the part. It’s very important that you bring up this situation at casting.” I’ve heard horror stories about auditions – generally from girls but not always. They are asked ‘roll up your skirt, stick your chest out, wear higher heels. It’s shocking and a power play. Especially when the directors are saying ‘look like you really want to f**k now’ with someone who’s 17.
If the script is clear and you don’t want to do it a body double may be hired. O’Brien says, “You should also absolutely be able to agree to what scenes they use. If people are thinking that it’s your body and there’s a simulated sex scene and there’s something you’re not happy with or it doesn’t serve the work then it’s gratuitous and not good. From training people to be robots she’s moved on from training people to have safe sex. “There are many movement directors who can choreograph sex scenes but the point is there need to be clear guidelines.”
“I want to have a clear and effective code of ethical practice. At the moment there is an absence of industry guidelines and that’s what I want to fix.
“Do you know the video A Cup of Tea? It explores the concept of agreed consent – if someone comes to your house and you ask them if they want a cup of tea and they say yes, you make it and by the time you come back they say I don’t want a cup of tea now. You don’t open their mouth, pour it down their throat. You can see that this is ridiculous therefore you can’t force someone to have a sex scene. It’s using the idea of agreement and consent. For instance you agree if you’re happy to be touched and where. Regarding genitals you should never have bare genital touching. The lady should have a murkin and the gent should have a cock sock.
“Part of the guidelines is that you talk about this beforehand. Work with wardrobe to make sure that the “coverings” are available in the right size. There’s one story that an actor had to do a gay sex scene. He was given a cock sock that was too small so the wardrobe department went away and came back with another one that someone had already worn. It was the right size but this gentlemen was of colour and the previous gentleman was white.”
She says all this very demurely and it’s not a surprise to learn that her dancing career started off with Irish dancing. Not just because her heritage is Irish but it’s about keeping very still while your legs move very fast. Contained, like a duck. Everything going on underwater. “But Irish dancing has a heartbeat that releases something?”
We digress into our education with cruel nuns. She had a Sister Mary Helen who beat the girls with a stick. Another reason why safety and boundaries are important to her.
“Actors should always be able to say stop if they are not comfortable.” Isn’t it hard if an actor really wants the part and they’re told in an audition, as was the case in Traffick, they have to do a sex scene? Would a director ever give the part to the girl who walked away?
She nods. “I agree and it’s hard but with this present climate I hope things have shifted and changed.” She points out starts of these changes.
“Tom Hanks says that the industry post-Weinstein, all studios are going to have to have a code of conduct printed on their doors. The climate has changed so this is now possible. The Old Vic (Kevin Spacey’s previous domain) are coming up with a code of conduct and The National too and The Royal Court. What I’m offering to the actors is that they should take autonomy. They should think do I want this or not? Is this serving who I am as an artist or not? And it is hard to walk away but if you’re in a situation that compromises you, you have to think. For an example, as a dancer I got sent along to be a possible body double for a star in a film who had to be a pole dancer. I was told they wanted me to be the top half and somebody else will be the bottom half. I told them no.”
Was that the thought of being half a body? “Yes and also the thought of me having to dance topless. When I thought about it I felt that I would go into shame and trauma so I said I can’t do this and that’s what I’m inviting people to do.”
She can’t remember who the star of the film was but it was back in the eighties when she could have done with the work.
O’Brien is currently teaching student producers and directors at Mountview. “Basically educating people across the board that there should be a code of conduct.” (In the past she’s taught at the Drama centre LAMDA).
The actors from Cowboy Mouth are really getting into their seals and monkeys. Very balletic versions of them as they take over Sam Shephard and Patti Smith’s play. They are the most impressive. The other script being worked on features an incest scene from ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore.’
Sculpt is one of her favourite words. She’s always talking about sculpting a scene so that everybody knows what they’re doing. What if the scene changes? “That’s when the director needs to come to the actor and re agree what they’re comfortable with. You can change the script but it’s just being aware… Say you want a breast being groped and someone’s not happy with it. Find out where that person is happy to be touched and you can still have that (she makes a sound of whimpering ecstasy)”.
“Bring solutions not problems. Actors need to equip themselves. It’s also important that the man checks where he is happy to be touched. In particular when I was exploring the dynamic of sexual abuse in our society, getting everyone to find when they were the victim and find the physicality for that and the next day everyone had to find what happens when they were the perpetrator. That was really sticky. People acknowledging when they were the ones doing the pushing, the taking. One actor said ‘I have realised all I have to do is stand with my arms out and I’m the perpetrator, yet I think of myself as a nice man. They can be equally in need of being taken care of as the victim because you’re asking them to go to a place that they find very disturbing.”
Clearly different people have different personal histories and sensitivities and what disturbs some destroys others and others may not be affected. “That is why it’s important to be upfront and honest. Yes it’s going to be hard to say certain things, that’s why I contacted Equity. Their guidelines were unfathomable and archaic and that’s why new ones need to be set in place.”