French language interview with Ita O'Brien on the role of Intimacy Coordinator and her experiences in shooting Sex Education.
More . . .
Taylor found the challenges of directing Sex Education – the hit Netflix show in which a young cast often perform explicit scenes – more considerable. He brought intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien on board. “A big part of what she did was help to demystify and take the fear away,” he says. “So actors weren’t dreading performing a sex scene.”
More . .
Evening Standard: Sex Education creator Laurie Nunn: It’s so important that teens see themselves reflected on screen
This tussle — between reason and the hormone-addled monster of adolescence — is just one of the arresting themes strung through a season that also covers (deep breath) chlamydia, bisexuality, middle-aged desire, douching in the gay community and, memorably, baba ganoush-based dirty talk.
However, Nunn (who, alongside the show’s other writers, works closely with intimacy co-ordinator Ita O’Brien) is conscious that Sex Education’s unflinching frankness never tips over into prurience that may worry actors.
“We’re constantly having open conversations, navigating the sensitive material, and if anybody did feel uncomfortable then it’s a very safe space for them to be able to voice that,” she says. “I also have a rule that sex scenes have to push the story forward or be educational in some way. That stops the show ever teetering into a gratuitous space or being titillating which, when you’re dealing with teenage characters [is a line] you have to tread very carefully.”
Last year, Game Of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke spoke of her “terrifying” early nude scenes on the show and inadvertently launched a wide debate about the pressure placed on inexperienced female actors to strip off on screen. Was Nunn conscious of this?
“It’s something I take very seriously,” she says. “Working with the intimacy coordinator is key to it. I feel that there’s a very interesting conversation to be had about whether we need as much gratuitous nudity on screen or whether we could pull back on that. Not just in our show but the industry in general.”
Nunn feels that there is a “purpose” to the show’s graphic content, both dramatically and — as per its name — educationally. Her decision to make horny sci-fi obsessive Lily (Tanya Reynolds) a sufferer of a sexually inhibiting condition called vaginismus has led to “quite a lot of messages” from grateful sufferers who didn’t realise they had a highly treatable medical condition. Tellingly, one of the most praised subplots from this new batch of episodes concerns a character who experiences a traumatising sexual assault that she initially tries to brush off with humour.
More . . .
Ita O’Brien’s work started long “before Weinstein.”
She drops the phrase “before Weinstein” like everyone is supposed to know what it means and everyone with any interest in show business does: that was the world before sexual harassment accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein finally surfaced; before the birth of the #MeToo movement.
O’Brien, who has a master’s in movement studies and works as a movement director, didn’t plan on becoming an intimacy coordinator—someone who coaches actors and filmmakers through sex scenes for stage and screen. It is a role O’Brien pioneered as she worked on her own material exploring the perspective of an abuser. “I knew that I needed to put in place practices and processes to keep my actors safe to help them explore that dynamic in a really healthy way,” she said. Soon, she was teaching her guidelines at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, one of the leading drama schools in the UK “That was in April 2015, and by the time Weinstein happened, I had already brought together the guidelines and subsequently, the role the intimacy coordinator has come from that. It certainly wasn’t my intention and it’s incredible that this is where I’ve ended up.”
Before Weinstein, said O’Brien, she was teaching drama students how to talk to directors about intimate content.
“With Weinstein happening, and then therefore, the whole of the industry going, ‘We’ve got to do better,’ suddenly it was invited, and that’s what was incredible.”
“Sex Education” was the first television project to hire O’Brien as an intimacy coordinator—a revolutionary and fitting move by a show that espouses openness and consent when it comes to sex. “She’s a very good part of the team,” said director and executive producer Ben Taylor.
Laurie Nunn, the show’s writer and creator, added, “It was important to know that everybody felt safe and secure and that if there was a problem, they could raise it.”
O’Brien loved working on the show. “It was an absolute pleasure and privilege and delight.”
In a show like “Sex Education,” there is an abundance of intimate scenes and to get the young cast members ready, a number of whom were going to be in front of the cameras for the first time, O’Brien began with open communication and transparency. “Nothing’s hidden, nothing’s left to the last minute, there’s clear communication. That’s what’s brilliant with Laurie’s writing. She really writes the intimate content clearly. We’re looking at why that scene is there, how it serves that characters’ storyline… all of that work is done before we even get to set.”
She asks the actors these questions: “What are you happy with? What are your concerns? What are you worried about? What’s a no for you?”
“Once that preparation is done it means that we can come on set and everybody knows what’s going to happen and we can work efficiently with the freedom to really create good scenes.”
O’Brien stresses how essential “consent of touch” is. “The process allows us to choreograph the intimate content clearly to allow everybody to be professional, serve character and serve storytelling. It means that everybody knows nothing’s going to be asked of them beyond what they’re happy with. That process was trusted and we were able to, as you can see, create exciting moments of intimacy,” O’Brien said.
She recalls one of her favorite memories from the set. “I was really proud of the fight into the kiss with Ncuti [Gatwa] and Connor [Swindells]. I really loved working in conjunction with the stunt coordinator. That kiss was nominated for one of the top 10 kisses of the year.”
The very first scene from season one is also memorable for O’Brien. “Working with Aimee Lou (Wood, who plays Aimee Gibbs) was just gorgeous. That very first scene, full on, isn’t it? Everybody knowing and being really empowered with not only what that scene was saying for the characters’ storyline, but also knowing where it’s placed within the whole production, knowing it’s the very first 30 seconds people were going to see… it was gorgeous, it was great.”
In Season 2, O’Brien shared her intimacy coordinator work with someone from her team. “That’s joyous in itself,” she said. “A lot in this series were male gay exploration and he did most of those which was really superb. The masturbation scene with Ola and Otis was great, the comic timing. I created the structure and they lifted it to another realm. Watching their skill as actors was just really fantastic.”
Today, O’Brien trains other intimacy coordinators and she’s had people come from all over the world—New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Germany, Canada, LA, New York, South Africa—to learn from her. “I now have about 20 practitioners around the world who I’m mentoring… we absolutely need more.”
There’s a growing demand for intimacy coordinators, said O’Brien. “This autumn has just been mad. I obviously can’t do everything, there’s some days that I’ve had my practitioners on five different productions on the same day.”
For her and her team, the learning never stops. “We share all of our experiences and write that back into our processes.”
We had to ask—what can nonactors learn from an intimacy coordinator? O’Brien said, “Open communication is the baseline. If you communicate openly with your intimate partners, it’s always the best. It’s not always easy, is it? But be able to ask for what you want, be able to say no to what you don’t want. It can be challenging but if you have open communication then that leads to healthy relationships and then would allow you to to healthy expressions of your intimate loving of your partners.”
More . .
It’s a strong storyline for a show that is essentially a comedy, but Sex Education is unique. It dares to go where no other teenage drama has been before and portrays young sex (gay and straight) realistically and graphically . The assault story is expertly driven forward by a team of talented young actors, supported on set by the intimacy co-ordinator Ita O’Brien and an excellent script.
More . . .
While the intimate scenes in both seasons are always done tastefully, there’s no denying that even the most PG-13 of sex scenes require utmost care and precision — especially when working with young actors. The practice of hiring intimacy coordinators has become more and more commonplace in Hollywood, and “Sex Education” had some of the best from the jump. For Season 1, the cast worked with Ita O’brien, a theatrically trained actress and intimacy coordinator who has worked on shows such as “Gentleman Jack” and “Electric Dreams.” Her assistant David Thackeray was on hand for Season 2.
“Ita [O’Brien] was the intimacy coordinator, and before we started filming we had a whole day [with a] big ‘ole conversation with producers, directors, cast, about intimacy scenes, about our fears and worries, just a general conversation, really in depth, for hours,” series star Emma Mackey told IndieWire during an in-person interview. “Then in the afternoon, we had a workshop where we physicalized it more and we did animal rhythms and mating rhythms and stuff.”
As Maeve Wiley, the sexually liberated brains behind the sex therapy operation, Mackey had some of the most explicit intimacy scenes in Season 1.
“The most important thing is physical consent,” she explained. “So it’s like a dance. We learn a dance. My scenes with Kedar [Williams-Stirling], who plays Jackson, for example — we would have Ita talk us through it, and then when we were on set we would put a dance together and we would talk about it with Ben [Taylor, the director] and we would be like, ‘Right, so we’re gonna kiss for three beats, and then you’re gonna put me against the wall, and you can touch me here, and then we’re gonna make out more and then you’ll lift me after four.’”
If it doesn’t sound very sexy, Mackey says that’s kind of the point. “The whole point is it demystifies sex scenes. It makes them more practical and actually more fun, because then suddenly you’re like, ‘Oh, actually this is fine,’ ’cause you’re almost making it mechanical. And the whole aim of the game is to make it look as real and truthful and messy as possible,” she said.
“Just making people feel really safe and comfortable is the most important thing,” added Asa Butterfield, who plays series lead Otis. “Establishing that conversation and knowing you can have that conversation if there’s anything you’re worried about. … Some people are naturally more confident or comfortable in those situations than others, so you’ve gotta find that balance and meet in the middle.”
Ncuti Gatwa, who plays Otis’ best friend Eric, pointed out the importance of actors feeling safe on set. “There’s not a human resources department in acting. You can’t file a complaint,” he said. “So putting these structures in place is important to help us do our job better. It’s important, because we are asked to do things that are absurd.”
In addition to feeling comfortable, Mackey said that choreographing a sex scene down to every minute movement actually freed her up to play her character more authentically.
“It separates you from your character, that’s the reason why it helps as well. ‘Cause all the noises and the things that turn your character on are different to what turns you on in your life,” she said. “So it separates you from the character. Which means you’re more free because you’re crafting a character as opposed to using something very personal. So it’s kind of like an experiment in a way — it’s quite cool.”