O’Brien kicked off the process of structuring the show’s intimate scenes quite early on. As the actors remember it, they’d only known each other for three or four days when O’Brien asked them to participate in an ice-breaking movement workshop. Mescal, 24, and Edgar-Jones, 21, remember the workshops as slightly mortifying. “We had to do a physical warm-up where we would inhabit animals, which is incredibly useful for the work, but my embarrassment threshold is quite low,” says Mescal. “I’m doing this in front of somebody who I was going to be working with for the next five months. I didn’t want Daisy to judge me or think that I was borderline insane.” Edgar-Jones laughs. “I was bent over because I was trying not to look at you.”
But both agree that the warm-ups were essential for creating a lighter mood and a deep sense of mutual trust that they kept up over the months of shooting. “Filming [sex scenes], you have to be able to have a giggle because it’s a strange situation to be in. You’re friends with all the crew. We’re all having lunch together. So you have to be able to laugh. And Ita just created an environment that was pressure-free,” Edgar-Jones says.
When considering what the sex scenes might look like, O’Brien took her initial cues from Rooney, who co-wrote the script with playwrights Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe. “There was such a clear charting of the progression of their intimacy, and also the quality of the intimacy, both in the scenes with Marianne and Connell, and then the scenes with the other people they had sex with,” she says. Sometimes the script’s stage directions would be explicit, but sometimes they’d be more vague, something like, “They make love.” In those murkier cases, O’Brien would sit down and discuss the scenes with Abrahamson, Macdonald, Edgar-Jones, and Mescal to find the answer to an essential question: “What shape might this lovemaking take?”
Abrahamson in particular knew exactly how he wanted the scenes to look and feel. He showed O’Brien the photographs of Nan Goldin as a sort of mood board, explaining that he wanted the scenes to feel “unglamorous, just natural and normal, with open nakedness.” He meant that both literally and figuratively: As Mescal puts it, Abrahamson “didn’t want them to feel different from a dialogue scene.” And then, of course, he wanted actual nudity, too, to make their relationship feel authentic. “Lenny spoke about the palette of nakedness,” says O’Brien. “Things like, when you come out of the shower, to not feel that you’ve got to hide — just take the towel off and naturally get dressed. Postcoitally, he wanted them to just naturally be lying there.”
Later in the series, when Marianne and Connell are more comfortable together and established as a couple, Mescal appears postcoital and fully nude with a flaccid penis; he laughs remembering how Abrahamson was “so nervous” about bringing up the nudity during his chemistry read with Edgar-Jones. “He was like, ‘Now you know, Paul, as you’ve seen in the book, we’re requiring and asking you for a full-frontal nudity clause,’” Mescal recalls. “I was totally surprised by the fact that there would be any other way of doing it. If you’re going to do the book correctly, I think that’s required.”
Both actors were thrilled but a little bit frightened by the volume and raw nature of the scenes. “Initially, when I read the scenes, I was really excited by them because they weren’t sex scenes that I had seen onscreen,” says Mescal. “And the prospect of bringing something to the screen that I felt was representative of the reality of young people in love having sex was really exciting to me.” He was admittedly wary, though, of the idea that his naked body would be forever immortalized on the internet. “That is going to be out there forever,” he says. “But then to know that the process was going to be in place with Ita and Lenny and Hettie, I felt totally safe and bolstered.”
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