Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How Normal People's intimacy coordinator made those sex scenes so sexy
A TV show came out in 2020 that — quarantine or no quarantine — made us all sad and horny. We're talking, of course, about the BBC and Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney's best-selling novel Normal People, starring Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones. Since there's been enough sad this year to last us a lifetime, let's talk about sex instead. The show's intimacy coordinator, Ita O'Brien (founder of Intimacy on Set and author of the Intimacy on Set guidelines, which protect performers during scenes that involve sex or nudity), takes us inside the creation of those steamy scenes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before we get into Normal People, tell me about the role of an intimacy coordinator and why it's so necessary?
ITA O'BRIEN: Think about it this way, if you're reading a script and there's a waltz, you realize people don't necessarily know how to waltz, so we need a specialist choreographer to teach that. Or if we're going to put swords in someone's hands, of course, people don't just know how to do sword play, we're going to need a practitioner. Then there was this gap. Just like a waltz, a sex scene is also a body dance and just like a fight, there's a risk and the risk is it makes someone vulnerable about being naked or being touched in places that aren't suitable. There was this sense that, well, everybody does sex, so we don't need to teach technique. Then there's the realization of, actually, no, people are vulnerable. And, as with any choreographed dance, you need a specialist practitioner to help everybody talk about it properly and professionally and not gloss over consent. Consent is needed both for touch and nudity, and of simulated sexual content. So there's need for a prep practitioner. Just like a choreographer, that practitioner puts clear choreography into place and brings in techniques. Of course, at the beginning, I had no idea that I'd end up helping to create a role of a practitioner that's now known as the intimacy coordinator.
Is the hope now that it'll always be the norm on set to have an intimacy coordinator to ensure that standard of care for actors?
Yes, absolutely. We're inviting producers to do this right from the get-go. If you read a script and earmark a dance, you're going to get a choreographer. You'd do exactly the same with the intimate content so that it just becomes commonplace. When I started talking about this post-Weinstein in 2017, I was like, "I hope in five years..." and here we are just a couple of years down the line and the shift is just fantastic. When I started teaching the work, the narrative I was inviting the actors to bring is: "I, as a professional, want to give you, the director, the best of my acting skills to serve the writing and the intimate content and the way to do this, is to work professionally." But at that time that narrative really was on its head. The statements before Weinstein were, "Oh, well, if you're an actor, you should be able to be naked. If you're an actor, you should be brave and do any intimate content." The amount of times people have come to workshops and said that it's the actor who's flagged something like, "Hold on a minute, shouldn't we pause and talk about this? Shouldn't we create a structure?" And then they were the ones that are made to feel unprofessional for asking for that.
Thank God things have progressed. I'd imagine it can be so damaging to a young actor, professionally and personally, to feel like they had to go through with something that made them uncomfortable on set. Perhaps abuse is too strong a word—
Actually, abuse isn't the wrong word for it. There's degrees from feeling awkward to feeling harassed, to absolutely feeling downright abused. It damages you and that internal misappropriation has this ongoing ripple effect. It damages a person's artistry. On Normal People the process, the structure, the relationship and the connection is what we absolutely focused on so that the storytelling was clear. As an actor, Paul was saying he felt less awkward actually doing it, then being in the audience, just sitting back and watching it.
Once you've gone through the script and earmarked the scenes you'll be working on, what's next? Sitting down with the actors and directors?
The next bit is that I always want to be serving the director's vision. On Normal People, before I met Lenny [Abrahamson, director] apparently he had the idea that sometimes stunt coordinators come in and they're like, "Okay, I've seen this moment so we'll throw them over the sofa and then we'll hang from the chandeliers." He was saying, "Is that what you're going to be like?" and I'm going, "No, I'm going to listen to you. I'm going to serve your vision and honor exactly what you want." In light of that, I always say the director speaks to the actors first about the scene so that it's really clear. Only once they've had that conversation, will I speak to the actors and go, "Great, you know the scene, you know what's wanted? Now what are you happy with? What are any concerns? What are you happy with nudity-wise?" I'm checking all of that out. Following that conversation, I'll speak to wardrobe and make sure that they've got all the genitalia modesty garments and everything ready. Then I'll speak to the first A.D. so that we're working together and making sure that we're on the same page and holding a really respectful, closed set. That's preparation that needs to be done.
In some of those scenes with Connell (Mescal) and Marianne (Edgar-Jones) having sex, it just looks so realistic. Is there a lot of choreographing and camera angles to make it seem so real? Basically, just how do you do it?
If you go back to that first scene, you'll see you don't ever see a full body. You really only see from about the ribcage up. The same scene can make an actor incredibly vulnerable depending on the camera angle. Honoring the storytelling, honoring the director's vision, and choreographing really clearly is one half of it, and then the other half is absolutely where the camera is placed. That's where Suzie Lavelle (director of photography) is just so creative. A lot of the book is about what the characters are thinking and her camera work brings us right up close and personal with them. That scene [of their first time together] was such a complex scene — it's nine minutes long. Lenny's such a generous soul and so experienced with his craft, but there's no ego with him. There was such ease and openness and collaboration with everybody. Paul and Daisy would have huge conversations around what the scene meant and really interrogate it. Someone who knows their craft might think of that as wasting time, but actually spending 20 minutes with your actors having a conversation and getting underneath the skin of each and every beat, means that when you get it in front of a camera, bang, you've got all that detail that Paul and Daisy were able to bring because of that collaboration.
How long does a scene like that first sex scene take to shoot?
That was a full day and it was boiling hot, in the middle of the summer. But regarding nakedness, the actors are only ever as exposed as is absolutely needed, each and every take. So most of the time they've got at least flesh colored shorts on and then tracksuit bottoms. That's always, always the case.
From a storytelling point of view, is it fun for you to get to show their growth through those scenes? For example, the difference in their lovemaking the first time together to when they get back together and each have had more experience?
Yes, in every scene, it's where are they now? Who are they now? When they get back together at university, they've both been with other people, so we brought in more of the body. We had a kissing of the belly. We have her with the thumb in the mouth, being more confident. Then when we came back after she's been to Switzerland, she's explored the BDSM stuff more and he's been with Rachel, so again there's another degree of confidence. In episode 12, we had them on the floor rather than being on the bed. That was a really conscious choice — there's that sense of more freedom within the space. That's all part of what's considered.
Once the scene is complete, do the actors get the opportunity to watch it back and make sure they're okay with everything?
Yes, that's a really important part of the process that the actors have the opportunity to see the tapes before it goes out to the rest of the world so the world's not receiving something that they weren't prepared for. We have to be careful as intimacy coordinators because it's not about us promising anything, but it is about us helping to facilitate that conversation between the actor and the production so that the actors can see that content.
It also feels important that sex isn't just in the story for the sake of the thrill or the nudity, it has to be integral to the narrative or further it in some way.
Yes, and that goes back to how Sally talks about the narrative of intimate content in Normal People. It's not just: And then they have sex. It bring us something more and that's what I'm trying to bring to the role of the intimacy coordination. I was saying to Lenny when we were filming that I was really aware that this was groundbreaking intimate content. I was aware that we had brought together a pocket of absolutely magical practitioners in every single role and that created something that was really, really special. It was such a privilege to be part of it.
Normal People (TV series)