At 10.15pm on 12 May 2020, over six weeks into its pandemic lockdown, Ireland marked a historic moment. RTÉ One viewers of Normal People, a TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, tuned into an episode that featured the longest sex scene in Irish television history.
For four minutes and 40 seconds, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones – playing the tortured young protagonists, Connell and Marianne – delivered a performance, complete with full-frontal male nudity, which generated breathless headlines the following morning.
The attractive characters and their many steamy encounters captivated UK audiences, with 16.2m streaming the show on BBC iPlayer and 3.3m on RTÉ Player.
But in interviews, instead of deploying the usual sheepish grins and stock interview answers about awkwardness, the actors told journalists they felt “proud” of the scenes and “safe” shooting them. This was down to the work of a woman called Ita O’Brien.
A professional intimacy coordinator, O’Brien seems to be behind every memorable sex scene on our screens this year – from “ugly” orgasm faces and dysfunctional masturbation in kooky Netflix high school drama Sex Education to menstrual blood and rape flashbacks in the innovative BBC One comedy-drama exploring consent, I May Destroy You.
The latter series ended this week with a characteristically complex and unpredictable finale: a stream of consciousness narrative punctuated with the jarring beats of a deliberately unsettled storytelling structure. And, of course, sex.
O’Brien calls it a “joy” to have worked with Michaela Coel, the show’s writer and lead actor. “She was phenomenal,” she tells me. “Watching her ability to swap hats – her centredness and humility, her ordinariness and inclusiveness, while also doing this ground-breaking intimate content, exposing assaults in so many places and confronting them, and the period sex, I was going, ‘Yes! Thank you!’”
These scenes, some based on the writer’s own experience, can be harrowing. O’Brien makes sure that the majority of the work is done before the day the scene is shot – speaking separately to each actor, checking up with the director and crew to avoid any surprises, marking each beat of the scene’s choreography in the script, and ensuring consent for every touch. For example, if the scene requires a reach for genitalia, the actor decides where precisely on their body the touch can land instead – a specific point on their thigh, perhaps.
This method brings a calm, professional atmosphere to scenes that can otherwise be nerve-racking to the cast. In episode six of I May Destroy You, for example, a schoolboy called Ryan attempts without permission to film the girl he’s having sex with in a disused schoolroom.
“He was really nervous, it’s quite a confronting scene,” O’Brien says of the actor, Josiah Mutupa. “But we did a full-day rehearsal, and it’s just choreography, you have all that structure to rehearse, so by the time you come back on set, you have absolute clarity.”
She reads out a text she received from Mutupa afterwards. “‘Filming that scene was so much fun, and I’m so glad I met you.’ That’s the kind of response I’m looking for, so that you know actors are proud of what they’ve done, empowered.”
Accustomed to working on set and stage since she started out as a dancer in musical theatre at 18, the 55-year-old has been stuck indoors during lockdown, watching her scenes unfold along with TV audiences.
“I’ve been sitting here at my desk and all of this has been happening out in the world,” she tells me from her dimly-lit bohemian study, which has midnight blue walls and is laden with patterned throws. “These series are so timely and so perfect, you couldn’t have predicted that when we were making them.”
Taught to dance from the age of three, O’Brien was brought up by Irish parents in Bromley, south east London. Her mother had moved to London to train as a midwife, and her father was from a family of horse trainers who moved to England when he was ten.
Working as a movement director since 2006, after ten years dancing and eight years acting, O’Brien noticed a lack of direction during intimate scenes. Actors were usually told to just “go for it”, she says with a wince, imitating humiliating instructions from clueless directors: “Go harder, harder! Go faster, faster!”
“If you’re going to do a stunt, you have a stunt coordinator,” she says. “If you want a fight to look good, you rehearse it, you put down crash mats – you don’t say: ‘Here’s a sword, now jump in front of the camera.’”
“And we know there’s a danger that someone will get hurt or break an ankle if they’re just told, ‘get up and do a waltz’ – they need to be choreographed.”
Actors began speaking out about uncomfortable sex scenes following the exposure of film producer Harvey Weinstein’s crimes in October 2017, amid a wave of revelations about Hollywood sexual abuse. Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke revealed last November that she felt pressured into “terrifying” sex scenes that left her in tears, and in 2017 Nicole Kidman said the abusive scenes in Big Little Lies left her feeling “deeply humiliated”.
Not much had changed, it seemed, since the director of 1972 classic Last Tango In Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci, conspired with his leading man Marlon Brando to film an unscripted rape scene without telling the then 19-year-old newcomer Maria Schneider (she has since said she felt “a little raped”).
O’Brien began designing her own “Intimacy On Set” guidelines in 2016. She first implemented them in March 2017, for an “alien porn” scene in Electric Dreams, a TV adaptation of Philip K Dick’s scifi short stories.
The guidelines are simple: talk through each touch with actors to gain their consent; always have a third party present at rehearsals; don’t ask for nudity in auditions or screen tests; ensure the wardrobe department supplies genital coverings, and so on.
In practice, they can be banal: breaking from kissing scenes in Normal People because of stubble rash, for example.
After emotionally-challenging scenes in I May Destroy You, O’Brien makes sure the actors detach from their characters, in a process called “book-ending” – “at the end of the day, making sure they step away”.
This can be as simple as having a shower or removing a costume. “Every actor’s different, so you’re saying: what’s going to work for you to let go of that character? Just to make sure they’re not left vulnerable.”
It is a straightforward, yet pioneering, approach. Industry bodies such as the actors’ union Equity, the British Film Institute, and Directors UK have recently begun working with O’Brien, the latter publishing its own guidance on directing nudity and intimacy last November.
Since starting her own company, Intimacy On Set, in April 2018, O’Brien has been training others across the world, including in New Zealand and the US, to practise intimacy coordination – it takes about two years to earn accreditation.
But persuading the industry to change, O’Brien admits, has been “so hard”. One director, on a production last year she refuses to name, ordered her to “stand back and don’t do anything” during a particular sex scene. “It had a moment of oral sex, and you had one person at one end of a body, and you wanted a response at the other end, and those actors weren’t in sync with each other,” she sighs. “You’re not getting the scene you want.”
O’Brien is subjected to “banter and laddish jokes” about her work on set and has been labelled “the fun police” by crews. But the joke’s on them, if the popularity of her most recent intimate scenes is anything to go by. “When the actors are comfortable, we as the audience can enjoy the characters because we’re not witnessing someone personally being made vulnerable.”