A new specialist has been hired by HBO to ensure that actors on their shows can shoot sex scenes without fears of misconduct
In The Deuce’s rendering of 1970s New York, women earn their money on motel room mattresses, in dark movie theaters and on porn sets. For the cast, that means a lot of nudity and even more simulated sex.
When Alicia Rodis joined the HBO show as an intimacy coordinator for season two, she phoned every actor before they shot their scenes. Cast members told her they had no idea what they were walking into before her call. Some of them asked questions. Others felt better just knowing she was there.
When people hear the term “intimacy coordinator” they assume the position is an extension of human resources. But Rodis does not view herself as a watchdog who censors sexually charged art, nor is she on set just to make actors feel comfortable. She says she’s just “assisting in the storytelling, so that people don’t actually have to do sex work”.
“The art is uncomfortable,” Rodis said. “Doing these scenes is uncomfortable. We want to make sure everyone’s safe.”
Rodis was hired by The Deuce after series regular Emily Meade asked the show’s creators for an on-set advocate specifically for sex scenes. The experiment was a game-changer: beyond returning to The Deuce for Season 3, Rodis is now consulting for HBO and overseeing intimacy coordinators to work across the network.
Because women are more susceptible to sexual harassment and assault, people might think Rodis is advocating primarily for them. But she said that much of her job is actually working with men who are terrified of crossing a consensual boundary.
“When I am on set, I am there for everyone,” she said. “If it’s a scene of a man and a woman, andif the man is the aggressor, often that actor will need more care than the other person in the scene.”
Interest in intimacy coordination spiked in November 2017. After the #MeToo movement revealed how rampant sexual misconduct is in the entertainment industry, actors and executives started searching for solutions.
But Rodis also attributes the profession’s newfound popularity to today’s politics, and more specifically to Donald Trump’s taped comments about groping women.
“I think that was a huge turning point in companies and institutions saying, ‘Oh, what are we doing to change that narrative that women can just be grabbed? That people can just be grabbed?’” Rodis said.
The field itself is relatively new, both for stage and screen; the phrase “intimacy choreography” was coined in the mid-2000s, and its systems were only codified in the last few years. Because its development is so recent and its rise so entwined with the #MeToo movement, it is often clouded by misconceptions.
“We’re not HR,” Rodis said. “You need to know how this whole industry works, and how a set works, and how rehearsals work, and all that jazz.”
Rodis is an actor herself and has had both positive and negative experiences in intimate scenes since she was 15 years old. But she did not realize the need for intimacy coordination until she worked on the other side of the camera.
When she was a stunt coordinator with New York University’s film department, she was approached by a student who had a sex scene coming up and who asked how to handle it. Rodis looked into the protocols: “There was just so little,” she said.
Around the same time, she was a fight director on a theater production where characters shared both a slap and a kiss. She staged the slap, and it went well. But the actors had no idea how to do the kiss.
Rodis had an epiphany: actors should have stunt coordinators for sex and nude scenes, like they do for other moments that are physically demanding. And she knew directors could use the help; even those who meant well could slip up and say something offensive or not set boundaries at times when everyone felt uncomfortable.
“A lot of this is with good intentions, but without protocols that have been researched and set, you’re kind of left fumbling in the dark,” Rodis said.
She and her colleagues founded Intimacy Directors International to parse out exactly what their new field was and develop the systems they needed to succeed. They spoke to stage and production managers about what worked and what didn’t. They consulted legal experts on the definitions of consent and coercion. They talked to social workers, psychologists and trauma experts on how to deal with actors if they were triggered during a scene. And they couched all of their findings into a practice that not only left room for artistry but made sure it was a priority.
As the entertainment industry has gone through its own learning curve in the past year, Rodis has heard that film companies are hiring “coordinators” who don’t have the qualifications to do what she does.
“This is a job where the wrong person in this position is worse than no person in this position,” Rodis warned. “So much of this is temperament, and knowing how to read the room and read people.”
Rodis said she keeps getting invitations from institutions to visit for a brief stint. But the offers aren’t appealing to her because in her mind, intimacy coordination on screen and intimacy direction onstage have to be about creating lasting change.
“I’m not a Band-Aid,” she said.
As for the future, Rodis sounds hopeful. Even as #MeToo loses some momentum, she foresees intimacy coordination sticking around – and taking off.
“I believe that this is going to become widespread, because why wouldn’t it?” Rodis said. “We are seeing now that there are better ways to do things.”