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Having worked with intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien for Sex Education, Mackey says it was ‘helpful’ to bring the ‘invaluable lessons and tricks of the trade from the Sex Education "school of sex"', onto the set of Emily. ‘It gives you such a sense of control and reassurance,’ she notes. In one passionate scene from Emily, Weightman struggles to undo Brontë's corset – a moment that's been deemed feminist foreplay. ‘It’s funny, because it takes so long, but it’s a really lovely moment,’ Mackey recalls of the scene. ‘[Oli and I] decided to just kind of craft [the sex scenes] with Francis, and go through the beats together,’ Mackey adds of the process behind filming, noting the actors had trust for each other to explore those intimate moments in a choreographed way.
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Elle: How Intimacy Coordinator Ita O’Brien Got The Conversations With Friends Cast Comfortable On Set
In ELLE.com’s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month, we spoke with Ita O’Brien, a pioneering intimacy coordinator who’s brought her expertise to groundbreaking shows like Sex Education, Normal People, I May Destroy You, Gentleman Jack, and, most recently, Conversations with Friends, out now on Hulu. O’Brien, a trained dancer and actor who received her Master of Arts in movement studies, was one of the first in the U.K. to develop guidelines for intimate scenes, creating best practices for working with any kind of nudity and sexual content.
In her role now, she helps to carefully choreograph scenes on set, ensuring all actors feel safe and comfortable, while also serving the vision of the project’s director and writers. “There’s a brilliant system in place for it,” Alison Oliver, who plays Frances on Conversations with Friends, told ELLE about working with O’Brien. “We’ll discuss the scene: What’s the trajectory, and what’s the quality of intimacy? And why is it happening? It’s a continuation of dialogue, in a sense.” Below, O’Brien discusses what it was like shooting the highly-anticipated show, how she first came into this line of work, and the way she copes with the psychological toll that comes with the profession.
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By LAUREN PUCKETT-POPE
In the new Hulu series Conversations with Friends, Alison Oliver and her co star Joe Alwyn spark an onscreen chemistry too intense to ignore.
Walk me through what it was like working with your intimacy coordinator. How do you make those scenes feel as real as they do in the books?
AO: There’s a brilliant system in place for it, where [intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien] will come into a rehearsal with us. We’ll discuss the scene: What’s the trajectory, and what’s the quality of intimacy? And why is it happening? It’s a continuation of dialogue, in a sense. It just becomes physical. So, from the get-go, [sex scenes] were presented to us as you would do a stunt and you’d choreograph that. We’d rehearse it loads. Ita would come in and suggest—Lenny would always talk about them as “shapes,” making different “shapes.” She would try out different ones, and then we’d copy her.
JA: Lenny always spoke about the [sex scenes] as extensions of conversations. They weren’t just there for the sake of it. Obviously, they’re funny and awkward things at the beginning. But once you get over that and you’re working with people you trust—and Lenny’s in the room, and Lenny is hilarious. You would want him on set in any scene.
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BY BECKY BURGUM
In the wake of the #MeToo movement and Hollywood’s continuing reckoning with sexual misconduct, intimacy coordinators have become a fixture on film and television sets. Their role is to ensure the safety, consent and comfort of performers when executing the vision of writers and directors.
And no one has received more attention and credit for doing so than Ita O’Brien, widely considered the original intimacy coordinator.
She spent years developing Intimacy on Set Guidelines, before founding Intimacy On Set, a service that provides intimacy coordinators, consultancy, advocacy and training for TV, film and theatre sets. She was first hired as an official intimacy coordinator on Sex Education season one in 2018 (a show widely praised for its realistic and inclusive portrayals of sex) and has since worked on other hit shows including Normal People, I May Destroy You, Industry and It’s A Sin.
‘I take no credit in the incredible writing that is already in the shows I’ve worked on, but my role is to help facilitate. I make sure the sexual content isn’t gratuitous, that it’s serving the character and storyline,’ says Ita O’Brien over Zoom. ‘I make sure the actors are fully aware on what is being asked of them and I create clear choreography for them to follow, so they feel safe and empowered.’
With the help of better scripts and more female directors, O’Brien is leading the charge ensuring there are more relatable, un-glamorised portrayals of sex on screen which directly transcend to what viewers are home can learn, consider and put into practice in their own lives.
Here she talks to ELLE UK about seven lessons we can learn about our own relationships and sex lives through the overhauling and updating of tiresome, outdated and harmful depictions on TV.
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