The UK has produced two standout TV series in recent months: Sex Education (Netflix) and Normal People (BBC). Both follow a cast of teenagers as they navigate the many ups and downs of adulthood, and you would think that's where the similarities end. While Sex Education uses tongue-in-cheek humour to tackle heavier issues like sexuality and gender binaries, Normal People depicts first love and mental health in a quieter way, where the power is felt fully in long stares and things left unsaid. But when I sat down to watch Normal People, the intimate sex scenes reminded me of Sex Education a lot, even though they are worlds apart in terms of their tone and pace.
Both shows deliver raw and honest depictions of sex across a spectrum of sexualities and desires, so naturally, it was a hot topic at the round-table interviews I attended for both series. When questioned about what it was like to film the huge number of sex scenes, there's one person that both shows' cast and crew credit for the believability: Ita O'Brien. An intimacy coordinator with a background in dancing, acting, and movement coaching, O'Brien has developed a set of guidelines to protect actors while filming sex scenes, and to ensure that networks are producing great intimate content. In both cases, the young actors said filming scenes under O'Brien's guidance was empowering — after a long day of filming, they felt confident and like they'd completed an honest day's work, despite the vulnerable positions the scenes put them in.
On the day that O'Brien and I caught up (in our respective homes during the UK's novel coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown), it was the day before her daughter's birthday. She started the interview by telling me all about the cake she planned to bake that evening, and what began as a scheduled 20-minute conversation evolved into almost two hours of chatting. Pretty quickly, it was obvious why O'Brien has been so successful in her business, pairing her extensive experience in the creative arts with her warm and empathetic personality. She is my favourite kind of person: a ballsy woman who's tough but undoubtedly kind. We spoke at length about the film industry and how it has historically approached intimate content, how it's evolved since the birth of Time's Up in early 2018, and exactly what it means to be an intimacy coordinator on set.
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