Meet Ita O'Brien, The Woman On A Mission To Make Sex Scenes Safer For Everyone
In one of the most poignant scenes in Netflix’s hit series Sex Education, Eric — the loveable french horn player with eccentric wardrobe taste — is pinned to the ground by Adam, a boy that has bullied him relentlessly for most of his school life. In an act of defence, Eric spits directly into his bully’s face. Adam retaliates with the same. Then they stop. A second passes. Suddenly, they kiss.
It’s a moment that can’t help but leave you electrified — by its tenderness, its innocence, but, above all, its spontaneity. A kiss is the last thing the viewer expects to see, and, by the looks of things, it comes as a bit of a shock to Eric and Adam, too. However, the truth is, of course, that hours of planning went into these brief few seconds. Each beat of the scene was choreographed with detailed precision.
Ita O’Brien begins with the basics. Where will the two boys be positioned? What areas of their bodies will be touching? How long will the kiss last? How many kisses will there be?
Then there’s the more complicated stuff. The spitting.
“When I checked in with them, they were both concerned about it,” O’Brien, who worked as the intimacy coordinator on the set of Sex Education, tells me. “They tried it once, and then they came and said, ‘Neither of us wants spit from our mouths to land on the other person.’ Then we set about finding a creative way to make it look like that's what happened.”
They settled on a combination of clever camera angles, a fake glob of saliva, and a plain piece of paper that the boys could aim their spit towards. “Nobody was any the wiser,” O’Brien says. “In fact, Ben Taylor, the director, didn't even realise that they hadn't spat at each other.”
“When you have a fight scene, you don’t just hand people their swords on the day and tell them to ‘go for it.’ Because everybody just knows that that's just so dangerous.”
O’Brien is a pioneer in the little-known field of intimacy coordination, which focuses on choreographing sexual, romantic, and intimate scenes — including nudity of any kind and masturbation — in the same way one would a fight or a dance scene: with exactitude. When she's on set, O’Brien helps actors to establish where they are comfortable being touched, as well as how each intimate scene will play out, moment by moment, so everyone involved knows precisely what to expect. Along with her on-set roles, O'Brien also runs workshops that actors and directors can attend to learn about best practices surrounding intimate scenes.
O’Brien’s time in the field, which began around August 2014, has culminated in the Intimacy on Set Guidelines, which she developed with the help of three other women in the industry: Vanessa Ewan, Meredith Dufton, and Jennifer Ward Lealand. Prior to these guidelines, very few codes of conduct surrounding intimacy on set or stage had ever existed in the UK.
I meet O’Brien at a café close to Central St Martins, where she has been working as a movement teacher for 12 years. Soon after we sit down, the café’s server brings over our drinks, and O’Brien is concerned about how strong her coffee looks. She takes a sip to try. “Oh no, that’ll knock my head off,” she says, before asking the server to bring over something weaker. It’s clear why: O’Brien, unlike most of us, doesn’t need caffeine to keep her awake; she has that enviable natural energy that comes from being physically fit (her work certainly seems to keep her on her feet), and having a genuine sense of enthusiasm for whatever she’s discussing.
I begin by asking about something that has captured the attention of many media outlets in recent months. When O’Brien was first brought on as the intimacy coordinator for Sex Education, she ran a workshop with the team there. Part of this workshop involved the actors watching and mimicking the mating rituals of different animals — think horses, gorillas, and even snails.
“It’s because it’s a transformation,” O’Brien explains. “It's inviting [the actor] to try a completely different rhythm, so [they can] have all different possibilities of physical expression other than just their own habit.” That way, O’Brien tells me, the actor can learn how to distinguish their own physical presence from that of their character, which is crucial when it comes to performing intimate scenes. “It means they can keep their private, intimate expression private,” she says.
This idea of protecting a person's privacy forms the foundation of O’Brien’s intimacy work. What O’Brien is trying to do is equip actors with tools that will allow the fictional scenes they perform to remain just that: fiction. She wants actors to understand they don’t need to rely on their personal experiences to create what is being asked of them on set. It’s something she has seen happen time and again during her 35 years in the industry. (O’Brien worked as an actor before becoming a movement director in 2006).
“What's happened in the past,” O’Brien tells me, “is that the director would talk really clearly to the actors and then say, ‘Right, you two go away and work it out for yourselves. You know what I want. You two work it out and come back and show me what you've got.’ That means that the actors have gone from being in a professional situation with the director to being two individuals in a space by themselves. As soon as two people are by themselves together, it ceases to be professional. They’re into their personal bodies.”
Aside from “go away and work it out for yourselves,” the other approach directors have taken in the past is simply allowing their cast members to improvise the intimate scene once they’re in front of a live audience or a rolling camera. In this case, the actors enter a kind of theatrical grey area, which will, at best, result in awkward misunderstandings and, at worst, lead to physical, emotional, or psychological trauma.
When one of the actresses on 'Sex Education' got her period just before a nude shoot, O’Brien was there to help.
One incident that plainly illustrates this kind of trauma is the now infamous Last Tango in Paris scene, in which Paul (played by Marlon Brando) forces himself upon Jeanne (Maria Schneider). In 2007, Schneider told the Daily Mail that this scene — which “wasn't in the original script” — left her feeling “humiliated” and “a little raped, both by Marlon and by [Bernardo] Bertolucci [the film’s director].”
As we’re chatting, O’Brien points to another, more recent, incident of this kind. She explains how struck she was by Nicole Kidman’s comments during a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable. Speaking to a group of fellow actresses about her intimate scenes in the HBO series Big Little Lies, Kidman said: “A lot of it was just the way Jean-Marc [Vallée, the show’s director] shoots, which I love. There was no rehearsal, there was just, walk into the room and do the scene, and he would shoot it. It's a fantastic way to do a performance like this because you're just in it, particularly for the sex scenes.” Later, however, Kidman explained how some of the more aggressive intimate scenes affected her: “I remember lying on the floor in the last episode, being in my underwear and having just been really thrown around. I just lay on the floor. I couldn't get up. I didn't want to get up. And I remember Jean-Marc coming over and putting a towel over me in between the takes because I was just like … I just felt completely humiliated and devastated. And angry inside.”
O’Brien explains why these comments shocked her: “While I respect every actor's choice of method, I recognise that this [incident with Kidman] did not put in place a structure where the actor can be personally safe.” Only when the parameters of consent are set, O'Brien tells me, can the actors become “artistically vulnerable,” because they themselves are no longer vulnerable.
On top of that, when a scene is properly choreographed, it’s “efficient, quicker, and repeatable” O’Brien tells me. “And the actors are present and conscious with it.”
One person who can attest to this efficiency is director Adelaide Waldrop, who first took part in O’Brien’s intimacy workshops a couple of years ago. Waldrop tells me that, prior to meeting O’Brien, she would spend a “ridiculous amount of time” working on sex scenes with actors. Now, thanks to the Intimacy on Set techniques, her rehearsal time can be a lot more productive. Waldrop describes the techniques as “life changing” — so life changing, in fact, that she has recently decided to join the Intimacy on Set team.
However, while these kind of positive responses seem the be the norm for O’Brien, she has also faced serious push back during her time as an intimacy coordinator. “What’s so often levelled at [the intimacy rehearsal process] is: ‘Oh, but if you rehearse it, it'll stop the chemistry and it won't be passionate. It won't be exciting anymore,” O’Brien says. “It's like, oh my goodness, when you have a fight scene, you don’t just hand people their swords on the day and tell them to ‘go for it.’ Because everybody just knows that that's just so dangerous.”
Anyone concerned about the “chemistry” of rehearsed intimate scenes need only tune into Sex Education to find their answers (that is, if they’re not one of the 40 million who has already). This show — a coming-of-age tale built for the digital ages — has been described as “the best portrayal of sex, and teenagers, out there” by GQ. The scenes are awkward, distinctly unsexy, and occasionally grotesque, but, above all, they are believable.
O'Brien always begins her intimacy workshops with a group discussion about past experiences of intimacy on set. For her workshop with the Sex Education team, she asked that everyone — not just the actors — be involved. “Producers, directors, first AD's, third AD's, first aiders,” and more took part, O’Brien tells me. “I had everybody sharing their experiences.” When I asked the reason behind this, she says: “[It’s] a leveler, and that's a big part of the intimacy work. It's part of why there's a lot bad practices out there — people just don't talk about it openly.”
Sian Robins-Grace, the co-executive producer on Sex Education, tells me that she found this group discussion particularly helpful. Speaking about the experiences that were discussed, she says: “Some were positive, some were negative ... It was interesting how many negative experiences people had had, even at that young age.” (The actors in Sex Education are mostly in their twenties.) Robins-Grace continued: “It was good for the crew members to be there, because that helped to clarify the 'danger zones.' When a crew works around actors, they need to be aware of when [they] are uncomfortable, so the actors are able to speak up. So hearing about those experiences really primed everyone to realise the moments to watch out for.”
After that, O’Brien says, she got the workshop “up on its feet.” Now working with just the actors, O’Brien went through her various movement exercises (animal mating rituals included) before asking the cast members to pick one scene from the show in particular they wanted to work on. From there, the show’s intimate scenes began to take shape.
Only when the parameters of consent are set, O'Brien tells me, can the actors become “artistically vulnerable.”
During our discussion about O’Brien’s role on Sex Education, I learn just how far her expertise stretches. Her work threads itself through every part of a production, from the acting to the make-up to the on-set medics, and she has to consult with each different department to ensure the creators’ vision is met, but in a safe and consensual way. When one of the actresses on Sex Education got her period just before a nude shoot, for example, O’Brien was there to help. “[The actress] said ‘there’s no way I’m just wearing a merkin [a pubic wig], and there’s no way I’m just wearing a gusset. I’m wearing a flesh-coloured G-string,’” O’Brien recalls. “So we had to choreograph where we put the hands, to sort of cover the [G-string], so you still had the inference of complete nudity.”
Since Sex Education’s launch, O’Brien's work has featured in a number of national and international newspapers and magazines, and she has begun working on more and more high-profile shows. O’Brien has recently been on the set of a new BBC drama, for example — although she can’t reveal the name of it. She’s also been working alongside Alicia Rodis, the co-founder of Intimacy Directors International, on a new show for HBO.
Sadly, O’Brien can’t tell me much about the HBO show either. Instead, she talks more generally about the network, and how happy she was with their announcement in Oct. 2018 that, moving forward, they would not shoot a sex scene without the presence of a intimacy coordinator. “What HBO is doing is so brilliant, because they have embraced [intimacy coordination] completely and they're writing their documents as to how the intimacy coordinator embeds into whole of the production,” she tells me.
“The hope is that, in five years time, say, the industry won't even dream of doing a sex scene without an intimacy coordinator,” O'Brien tells me. For now, however, she'll continue to take on the TV and film world one scene, one move, one brief moment at a time, until every actor can feel safe and supported in what they do.