A year ago, you couldn’t find an intimacy coordinator on the set of any major TV show. But thanks to “The Deuce” actress Emily Meade, that has completely changed.
Intimacy coordinators are one of the biggest evolutions to hit Hollywood since the Me Too movement took off in 2017. These experts work with directors with actors to make sex scenes safer, and they’re helping to create Hollywood’s first set of standards around simulated sexuality.
On “The Deuce” Meade, 30, plays Lori Madison, a sex worker in 1970s New York making a name for herself in an industry built to tear her down.
In a journey that echoes her character’s, Meade said Me Too made her reflect upon the on-camera moments across her 15-year career when she had “felt uncomfortable, or perpetuated these things not changing.”
In early 2018, during preproduction for Season 2, Meade enlisted the help of co-star and veteran actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, and together they spoke up.
“I just went to HBO and the producers of the show and asked for somebody to be there to sort of oversee the communication of the sex scenes. I didn’t know that an ‘intimacy coordinator’ was even a job, which is sad and crazy because I should have been using it for a long time,” Meade said.
Intimacy coordinators may be new to the world of TV, but the New York City nonprofit Intimacy Directors International (IDI) has been coordinating onstage intimacy in the world of theater for the last 15 years. When HBO called on behalf of Meade and Gyllenhaal in 2018, it was IDI’s first look from a major TV studio.
Intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis recalled her first meeting with the HBO team.
“It was just like any other interview, except that they were interviewing for a position that they had never hired before,” said Rodis. “I sat down, and all the executive producers are there, and legal is there, and they look at me like I’m a fey creature and are like, ‘So how does this work?’”
It’s a fair question. HBO, which has a history of on-set controversies, is reckoning with a power dynamic that IDI’s Claire Warden believes sits at the core of Hollywood.
“We condition our actors to always say ‘yes,’ because if you say ‘no,’ you’re being difficult, or someone else will say ‘yes’ and we’ll give them the job,” said Warden.
Whether its director Bernardo Bertolucci withholding details of a rape scene from actress Maria Schneider when shooting in his 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris,” or director Abdellatif Kechiche making his actors feel “like prostitutes” in the 2013 film “Blue is the Warmest Color,” it’s a problem that’s been around for a long time.
On-set misconduct isn’t always the concern. In some cases, an actor takes on emotional labor that distracts them from their performance. Meade acted in her first sex scene at age 16, opposite a 20-year-old man, in the indie film “The House is Burning.” Recounting that scene, Meade said “he was a nice man who was so uncomfortable with the fact that I was 16. So I actually was spending so much of my energy trying to comfort him.”
“It’s those clear boundaries that gives the performer the freedom to act their part,” said Teniece Johnson, an intimacy coordinator at IDI.
Rodis worked with Meade, along with the rest of “The Deuce” cast, through Season 2.
Meade recalled one scene she had been worried about. “I had to simulate giving oral sex,” she said. “I’m not scared off very easily, but I was afraid to actually do that. I was afraid to have those images of me existing.”
Rodis listened to Meade’s concerns and mediated a conversation between the actress and the episode’s director. On set that day, Rodis was watching the monitors and checking in on Meade between takes.
“It wasn’t even that Alicia changed anything about the scene,” Meade said. “It was just talking about it and processing it and digesting it.”
IDI’s pilot program with “The Deuce” was so positive that in October 2018, HBO agreed to hire an intimacy coordinator for all series across the network ― a decision that will affect shows like “Insecure,” “Westworld” and “Big Little Lies.”
“It was the most proud moment of my life,” Meade said of the news. “That’s all I ever wanted to do as a little girl: change the world.”
And that decision has since reverberated outside of HBO. “The Deuce” creator David Simon said he won’t work without one again. And across the pond, Netflix staffed the debut season of the British series “Sex Education” with an intimacy coordinator, encouraging its young cast members to start their careers with a language to speak up for themselves.
“After Me Too, people are realizing they don’t have to just go along with it. That they have a right to sovereignty of their bodies and their experiences,” said Rodis. “We have specifically trained ourselves to have those conversations and to do the work, so that if you don’t have the language for it, we’ve got language for you.”
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Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
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