Having sex with a new partner can be embarrassing enough in real life – imagine doing it on screen. Enter Alicia Rodis, the world’s first intimacy coordinator, on hand to guide A-listers through the awkwardness of movie sex scenes.
Alicia Rodis faked her first orgasm in front of hundreds of people at just 17. She was performing in a play at her local theatre, but nobody gave her any coaching for that scene. ‘The director’s attitude was just, “OK, go!”’ she recalls. ‘People tell actors to “be a professional”, but there is no professional protocol for simulated sex.’
However, Alicia, now 36, is changing all that as the entertainment industry’s first and foremost ‘intimacy coordinator’, making sure that actors have – or at least look as though they’re having – great sex on screen. Her role isn’t seedy – this is not pornography – but, just like off-screen sex, on-screen sex is potentially awkward and difficult to talk about.
‘I know people who, in their real-life intimate moments, can’t bring themselves to say: “Can I put my hand here? Are you comfortable with that?” And we’re asking actors to do it, often naked, with someone they may not even know,’ she says. So, part counsellor, part negotiator and part choreographer, Alicia, who was hired by cable channel HBO for its drama The Deuce (set in the porn industry in 1970s New York), is taking the awkwardness out of sex scenes as well as helping to dodge the potential legal and emotional pitfalls when nudity, cameras and feigned passion are involved.
On the New York set, Alicia’s role involves the prosaically practical, including providing breath mints, antiseptic wipes and mats for actors to kneel on to make sure they don’t get bruises while performing simulated sex acts.
Margaret Judson, an actress in The Deuce – which also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco – described Alicia as ‘like a chaperone at a prom. She made sure the man playing opposite me sanitised his hands before we started, and wiped them down after every take,’ she has said. ‘She checked in with me constantly, bringing water and coffee and mints. She also choreographed some movements, much like a stunt director.’
Alicia is also in charge of the amusing but important task of sourcing replacements for what are known in the trade, rather indelicately, as ‘sn**** patches’ and ‘c*** socks’. The costuming of sex scenes has long left a lot to be desired – flimsy pieces of nude fabric are often the extent of it. ‘They need a barrier between them that’s not just a piece of cloth,’ says Alicia, who has commissioned garments made with robust padding, ‘so that whether someone does or doesn’t get an erection, their scene partner doesn’t have to know.’ This is not uncommon; involuntary ‘vascular reactions’ are an occupational hazard, says Alicia – and they haven’t generally been discouraged. ‘If anything, actors are told to “feel it” when they are performing,’ she says.
To avoid such situations, Alicia acts as an intermediary between actors, directors and producers, negotiating the exact terms of each sex scene, from the amount of nudity to particular moves. ‘For example,’ she says, ‘the rider [contract] for a single scene will say: “Player A agrees to simulate oral sex, on her knees, to a male actor. For absence of doubt, there will be no nudity.”’ (No, it isn’t very sexy at all when you break it down like that.) If an actor is unhappy with anything, Alicia will give them the confidence to say ‘no’ and help them find a solution.
‘So many people outside the industry say to me, “Oh, I thought they just had sex,”’ she says, rolling her eyes. In fact, that steamy-looking spontaneous clinch was probably created in a draughty studio, surrounded by a dozen crew members, repeating a motion for multiple takes. Actors have long made no secret of the discomfort and cringe-inducing grind (no pun intended) of filming sex scenes. Roger Moore is said to have told his co-stars, ‘I want to apologise now if I get an erection… And if I don’t.’ After filming Gone Girl, Rosamund Pike said of her sex scene with Neil Patrick Harris: ‘You’re with a man who’s not your husband who also has a husband. He’s in his underwear, you’re in your underwear, and you’re dry humping on a bed.’ Jennifer Lawrence has said she was guilt-ridden by the prospect of a sex scene with the then married Chris Pratt for 2016’s Passengers.
Actress Emily Meade knew something had to change. After securing the role of Lori, a prostitute-turned-rising porn star in The Deuce, she balked at the prospect of performing X-rated scenes on a daily basis. ‘The idea of playing such a role every week with little preparation, which is the nature of TV, was very anxiety-provoking for me,’ she’s said. Taking this on board, the channel hired Alicia, who helped Emily build intimacy and trust with her co-star. She performed eye-to-eye contact exercises and ‘consensual hand touching’ – when one person takes the other’s hand and places it where it will be on their body during the scene. ‘It turned out to be easy and comfortable,’ Emily said, joking that she wished Alicia could accompany her on all of her dates.
Alicia has spent much of her career performing and coordinating stunt work, mainly in theatre and independent film, and the parallels are close, she says: both sex scenes and fight scenes have to appear realistic and natural. But whereas ‘nobody would tell two actors to just start punching each other’, she says, in sex scenes, historically, directors have done exactly that. In the absence of input or direction, actors are forced to simulate what they would do in real life. Which, when you think about it, is a bit weird: thrusting against a colleague for take after take would likely make the boldest of us blush.
And the outcomes haven’t always been positive. Alicia estimates that 90 per cent of performers who have played a sex scene have had some sort of traumatic experience arising from it. ‘Actors and actresses experience a whole spectrum of emotions, from feeling uncomfortable to shame because an incident was never talked about,’ she says. There are potentially serious and damaging incidents, too. ‘I know of situations in which a director has told an actor to “just keep going”, and an actress has been sexually assaulted,’ she says.
The subject has been brought into sharp relief recently by the rise of the #MeToo movement, the campaign against sexual assault that emerged in late 2017. Practices which, in the past, might have been overlooked or even deemed ‘just what you have to do’ – by women as well as men – are no longer acceptable. On set now, Alicia has firm rules when asking an actor or actress for their consent to take part in a certain scene. ‘“Maybe” is a no, “sure” is a no,’ she says. ‘Only if they can look me in the eye and give me an enthusiastic “yes” are we good to go.’
Alicia grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and began acting in local productions at the age of 12. She studied drama at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where she did a lot of fight scenes that led her into stunt work in theatre and film. She’s not just talking about bar brawls or jumping out of windows, though. ‘I kept being called to help with sexual assault and rape scenes,’ she says, ‘and I realised there were no protocols.’
In 2016 she and two other acting/movement teachers founded the not-for-profit Intimacy Directors International to establish standards for intimate scenes in theatre, film and TV, and to help implement them. Their guidelines and techniques are drawn not only from stunt work but from less obvious avenues, too. ‘I borrowed from people who host sex parties,’ she says. One hostess told her about a consent game that helps people practise asking an uncomfortable question, and saying no to it.
Attendees all write a sexual act on a piece of paper and place it in a bowl. Everyone has to read one out, asking another member of the group if they will engage in that particular act; the other person must say no. Alicia plays similar games during actor training, ‘just to get them to practise saying no – it’s amazing how hard people find it’.
Unsurprisingly, as Hollywood strives to make up for decades of lapsed regulations protecting its performers, Alicia is very much in demand. She is now contracted exclusively to HBO, working on the bachelor comedy Crashing, new drama Watchmen and the film of the Western TV series Deadwood. Fortunately, as well as the five intimacy coordinators on Intimacy Directors International’s books, Alicia is training a further 12 people around the US.
Ultimately, she hopes to see the industry demand that every sex-scene set employs an intimacy coordinator as they would a stunt team. ‘Actors are at work,’ she says, ‘and they need to have the same rights and protections that anyone else would expect to have at work.’
The scenes that caused a scandal
Before #MeToo, here’s what the directors and producers got away with…
Last Tango in Paris
In 1972, actress Maria Schneider, then just 19, was kept in the dark before filming Last Tango in Paris’s notorious sex scene, in which a 48-year-old Marlon Brando uses butter on her as a sexual lubricant. Disturbingly, director Bernardo Bertolucci reasoned that he wanted her to react ‘as a girl, not as an actress’. Maria, who died in 2011, has admitted she felt ‘humiliated and, to be honest… a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci’.
British actress Susan George says the director of 1971’s Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah, wanted her to have sex for real in the film’s controversial double rape scene. ‘He wanted it to be utterly explicit,’ says Susan. ‘He would have loved the real action. He really got into this rape scene, and it terrified me.’ Finally, after she threatened to quit, Peckinpah agreed to tone things down, letting the camera linger on her face rather than her body.
Salma Hayek alleges that producer Harvey Weinstein forced her to film a nude lesbian sex scene in Frida, the 2002 biopic of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, telling her that if she didn’t do a full frontal sex scene with her co-star Ashley Judd, he would cancel the movie. The actress, now 52, says she shook uncontrollably during filming, crying and vomiting repeatedly, and she had to take a tranquilliser to enable her to do it.