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.”
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