Too many film and television bosses still do not understand the value of intimacy coordinators and hire them purely as a box-ticking exercise, one of the industry’s leading figures has said.
Ita O’Brien was celebrated on Sunday by the actor and writer Michaela Coel, who dedicated her best actress Bafta to the “essential” work she did on I May Destroy You. Coel spoke powerfully of the “internal devastation” she had felt working on shows that had no intimacy coordinator.
It was a description O’Brien was familiar with. “It is so fantastic that she put it like that because that is absolutely what happens,” O’Brien told the Guardian. “In every single workshop I do, everyone will have a story.”
After the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the #MeToo movement, demand for O’Brien’s services increased from 2018. But she said she had been hired for productions where the director did not want her involved.
“Really I was just a box-ticking exercise for the producers. I was told check in with the actors … and then do nothing,” she said. Was that still the case? “Yes, yes, yes … absolutely.”
O’Brien recalled one production where she asked for gender parity in the crew filming a sex scene, which otherwise would be almost all men. “I got told ‘don’t ask for that. What you’re doing is now impacting on the production adversely and we’ll have none of it.’ There have been many times I’ve walked away from sets and it has so been hard and I’m feeling: can I keep doing this?”
She said there had also been shows where the experience was a positive one, including Sex Education, It’s a Sin, Normal People and, of course, I May Destroy You, which was the standout show at Sunday’s Baftas.
O’Brien said she had no inkling Coel was going to dedicate her win to her. “I didn’t have a clue. I wasn’t even watching it because I’m in Prague and I’d lost my glasses, I was outside the hotel trying to find them, and then suddenly all these texts came through, I thought: what the hell’s going on?”
Working with Coel was a privilege and a joy, she said. “Michaela is such an incredible woman.”
O’Brien’s role in productions is a relatively new one but, she said, a vital one. Performers wouldn’t do stunts without a stunt coordinator or dance without a choreographer.
She said acting was a craft to be treasured, like a Stradivarius violin. “You would not hand that violin to someone who is going to take it and bash it against a wall, but in effect that’s what had been happening.”
She recalled being on a panel with the actor Sofia Helin, the star of The Bridge, where Helin said every intimate scene she had previously done had “cost her”. “There was a gasp from the audience … someone of her standing. But that has been the case when the work hasn’t been created within a professional structure.”
Before Weinstein, O’Brien said, “the narrative was an actor can’t say no. If an actor said no, they’d be considered a troublemaker. They would be scapegoated as not professional. An actor should be able to do any degree of nudity or sexual content because they are an actor.”
The truth was everyone had a different relationship to their nudity and comfort with sexual content, she said.
Her job involves a lot of talking, preparation, establishing comfort zones, as well as the practical – knowing, for example, when a genital guard is or isn’t needed. “Nothing is left to chance.”
As demand for intimacy coordinators grows, O’Brien, a former dancer and actor who got her Equity card 38 years ago, is involved in training the next generation.
One of the next frontiers is the audition process, where she said actors were particularly vulnerable. Being asked to remove clothes at an audition is never acceptable, O’Brien said, and processes need to be in place.
“If intimate content is ever wanted, a touch or a kiss is wanted, then there need to be guidelines. There is a long way to go to really, truly believe that we’ve got an industry where people can speak up and be safe to deliver good work.”