Once on set, “Daisy, Paul and I would talk through where they could touch each other, where they could kiss each other – as an example, in the early scenes Daisy had to wear a wig, so she had a rule about Paul not running fingers through her hair,” O’Brien explains. “While that might sound banal, it is really important because an actor doesn’t want to have to worry about that while filming sex, they want to be relaxed.”
Then, when everyone is ready, time for a quick hug as an icebreaker – and filming can begin.
In interviews, Edgar-Jones and Mescal have raved about O’Brien. “She’s the go-to,” Mescal told the Observer, while Edgar-Jones called her “brilliant … it was her job to worry about how it would work and we just turned up, did the choreography and carried on”. But director Lenny Abrahamson has cheerfully admitted that he was anxious about working with O’Brien, “because I thought the most subtle and important moments would be between me and the actors.”
“But working with Ita, it was a lovely creative conversation and there was always a way in which they could say no. They were encouraged to talk about whether they felt OK or not. “It was never, ‘Will you do that?’” he told the Observer.
O’Brien laughs: “I didn’t know that Lenny was sceptical when we first met. But he knew very quickly that I wasn’t there to get between him and Daisy or Paul. I’m there to provide some professional structure that hasn’t been there before.”
Not all of her experiences are as happy as Normal People. She recalls one director shouting at his actors: “Give her a good rogering, harder, harder, harder!” (“I had to say, ‘Can we maybe pause and talk about penetration and the rhythm of intercourse?’” she said). And while demand for her skills is higher, O’Brien feels that she is often viewed as a tick box by producers and directors who want to be seen as observing best practice in the wake of #MeToo, but don’t want to provide it.
“This year, more than ever, I’ve worked for producers who don’t actually want me there, who say to me, ‘Come in, get our nudity waivers ready and then stand back and do nothing’,” she says. She describes one set, where an actor asked for help while performing her first ever oral sex scene. “The director refused her a rehearsal and I stepped in and the director said, ‘Well, you’re directing now.’ It’s absolutely awful and the poor actors are then working in this terrible atmosphere. I’m still encountering this and it feels like I’m on the frontline of a war.”
Rooney herself has likened sex scenes to just another form of dialogue; for O’Brien, the sex in Normal People “isn’t just there to show us sex – those scenes chart the delicacy, the beauty, the openness of this incredible, something-other relationship. It was crucial for me to honour Sally’s writing. There is nothing gratuitous. But there is also a lot of sex.”
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