Sexy beats: how Normal People’s ‘intimacy coordinator’ works

Ita O’Brien, who worked on the BBC version of Sally Rooney’s novel, explains her often vexed role and how she helped with a story that depends on its sex scenes

It’s easy to forget just how much sex there is in Sally Rooney’s Normal People, when many of its greatest romantic beats are carried in a furtive glance or something left unsaid. But when putting the novel’s most intimate scenes between Marianne and Connell on screen, what was once a matter of lines on the page becomes minutes of closeups on flushed and sweaty skin.

Every sex scene in the BBC’s much-anticipated adaptation, starting on Sunday, even the clumsiest teenage fumblings – a bra getting stuck over Marianne’s head, Connell tripping over his trousers – was carefully choreographed by Ita O’Brien, an “intimacy coordinator” who makes sure actors are comfortable while filming rumpy pumpy. Over the last decade, intimacy coordinators have become more commonplace on theatre, film and TV sets, particularly in the aftermath of Harvey Weinstein’s fall. Suddenly, producers and directors are falling over themselves to hire someone like O’Brien, who has worked on everything from Netflix’s Sex Education to HBO’s Watchmen and BBC’s Gangs of London.

O’Brien, who has trained as a ballet dancer since she was three, and has worked as an actor herself, says she should be regarded as akin to a stunt coordinator. “I once called the role ‘intimacy director’, which was completely wrong, I made lots of directors very nervous,” she says. “But just like a stunt coordinator, I’m trying to improve communication, streamline production, serve the director’s vision and bring my skill of choreography and dance to the set.”

Ita O’Brien.
‘I made lots of directors very nervous’ … Ita O’Brien. Photograph: Nicholas Dawkes Photography

On a normal day on Normal People, O’Brien would meet with the directors, Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, then visit the actors, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, to check for any nerves. Then after quickly popping in to wardrobe to make sure they had enough genital guards, she’d head to set, making a plan for every significant moment in a scene, “where is a gaze, where is a touch, where does a no become a yes”.

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.”

Contributor

Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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