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We worked with an amazing intimacy coordinator, and it taught me so much about how phenomenal they are and how important it was. We worked with Ita O'Brien who also did Normal People. We spent two weeks rehearsing. It meant that Jack and I could get to know each other as friends and become comfortable. We sort of went through every scene and broke it down, like a dance, like with the stunts. It made everyone aware of our limits of where we can be touched or don't feel comfortable being touched. Once you have all these boundaries established and made clear, and once you mark through all the beats, then everyone knows where they're at, and so then you can have fun and freedom within it, which was so important for this because those scenes are so liberating for both of them.
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BY ENDA BOWE
“One of the things that’s pretty powerful about that scene is there’s an element of asking for protection in that moment,” she said. “I don’t think often you see lovemaking scenes with those elements, because I think for some reason we feel that that would break the moment or take away from the raciness of it. But it really adds to it, because it’s truthful to what an actual first-time relationship should be like when it comes to Connell making sure Marianne is safe. But also that Marianne feels she’s able to ask for protection and not feel embarrassed by that.”
Intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien worked closely with the actors to make sure that they felt just as comfortable, while also ensuring that their movements looked truthful.
“Ita’s really good at making sure that everybody understands what’s going to happen and feels good about it,” explained Abrahamson. “You have the two actors stand and talk to each other and say what they feel comfortable with [touch-wise].”
Abrahamson said that O’Brien also helped coordinate movements so that, for example, while the actors might look as though their bodies were pressed against each other, they were actually positioning themselves in a certain way to cheat that closeness, or being separated by some material. “There’s all these varieties of covering so that everything that’s off camera is covered,” said Abrahamson. “It’s lots of planning and discussion, but what it means in the end is that everybody feels comfortable.”
Extensive rehearsals involved not only the actors and the intimacy coordinator, but also everyone else who would be on set the day of filming, including the cinematographer and script supervisor. They rehearsed every element of filming the scene, from blocking to camera angles to who would cover the actors with clothing once Abrahamson called “cut.” “All these really simple things help make things go calmly so there’s no rushing around on the day,” he explained. ”So if you’re going to have nakedness on a wide shot, how do you do it to make sure that everyone is comfortable…and then with each sort of setup, you say, ‘Well, on that one, people can wear shorts…or everything can be covered because all you need to see are the faces. You’re basically making a strategy for the day.”
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BY ABIGAIL GLASGOW
That’s where Normal People’s intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien comes in. Like a stunt coordinator, she brings technique and skill to the movement via open communication and transparency. Her role is more comprehensive than simply determining the physical choreography of a scene; she helps actors understand their characters even in phases of script study; she works in tandem with the entire crew—directors, producers, wardrobe, assistants—through the entirety of the rehearsal process up until intimate content is shot on a closed set. The intimacy coordinator is helping to reshape—from rehearsal to audience—the infamously abusive relationship the industry has with sex.
Here, O’Brien—whose credits include Sex Education and Humans—talks the details of onscreen sex, the challenges of a simple kiss, and how a masturbation montage can change lives.
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The work intimacy coordinators do is complex and multifaceted. It requires a few skill sets that don’t necessarily always coincide in a single professional—including choreography, contract negotiation, and emotional intelligence. Ita O’Brien, who has worked as an actor, dancer, movement director, massage therapist, and, now, an intimacy coordinator on productions including Netflix’s Sex Education, began advocating for the merits of this job a few years ago. “I was saying then, ‘My hope and my intention is that, say, in five years’ time, that productions will not dream of doing sex scenes without an intimacy coordinator,” she told V.F. during a recent phone interview. “It’s so amazing to see how quickly the industry has shifted and changed.” She and Rodis have never met in person, but Skype frequently, she said, as they work to help productions across the globe embrace intimacy coordinators.
O’Brien has published guidelines for on-set intimacy and nudity—rules that, for instance, mandate that directors and actors discuss all intimate scenes before signing contracts, throughout rehearsals, and during performances. They also call for a true closed set while filming those scenes. “The main thing is open communication and transparency with this work,” O’Brien said.
As an intimacy coordinator, her onboarding process involves speaking with all relevant parties on a given set to identify each intimate scene and do risk assessment. If an actor has worked with an intimacy coordinator before, this usually just means checking in with them to learn of any potential concerns; O’Brien walks those who haven’t through her process before asking them what kinds of interactions might make them uncomfortable. By the time everyone arrives on set, O’Brien has spoken with all the parties involved in these scenes, from performers to producers. She’s familiar with each actors’ nudity clause, and what they’re comfortable with. She also makes sure to check with the director about what the scene adds to each characters’ emotional journeys—in other words, why it exists in the first place, and what it’s meant to express.