This story contains reference to sexual assault
Intimacy on a television or movie set can be many things. It may include a hug between an older married couple, someone changing a nappy, a medical or historical scene that involves nudity, a fleeting hand graze, a simulated sex scene.
When the director of photography is focused on getting the best shot, the producer is making sure production is on schedule and on budget, and the actor is fixated on giving their best performance, consent can get lost or diluted.
Until the #MeToo movement, the job title 'intimacy coordinator' was virtually non-existent, and the work mainly existed in diluted forms. Even now, there's just a handful of accredited intimacy coordinators in Australia.
But demand is growing, intimacy coordinator Chloe Dallimore told The Feed.
"Now for many of the big organisations we are embedded in the OH and S (Occupational Health and Safety) policy," Chloe said.
“I challenge everyone to actually sit and watch the credits on productions and see how many have an intimacy coordinator because it's on almost every production.”
Like a stunt coordinator, but for intimacy
The role of an intimacy coordinator (or intimacy director for theatre) is to help advocate for an actor to the other players on set. They’re having conversations with the director, wardrobe and other actors, almost like an intimacy stunt coordinator who makes sure the lines are drawn in the sand before filming starts.
Along with helping to choreograph intimate scenes, they might ensure an agreement for a specific amount of nudity stays that way on set, that actors aren’t inadvertently exposing more than was agreed to while they're moving around or that the right underwear or modesty wear is provided when the cameras are and aren’t on.
They’re ensuring only essential crew are in the room when intimate scenes are being shot, reading the fine print of contracts, and even confirming that actors are aware that signing on for a kissing scene could expose them to a sexually transmitted disease.
In 2019, ‘Game of Thrones' actor Emilia Clarke shared that she had felt pressured to appear naked in the show, while in 2017, Salma Hayek accused disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of coercing her into shooting a sex scene in the film 'Frida'.
Shabana Azeez, a 25-year-old Australian actor who has starred in ABC's The Letdown, SBS's The Hunting, and Channel 9's Metrosexual, counts herself as one of the lucky ones, having worked with intimacy coordinators from early in her career.
“As an actor, you're not really trained to ask questions when someone says 'could you just put your leg higher?' And you’re no longer sure if the sheet on the bed is still covering you," she said.
Australian actor Shabana Azeez (right) on the set of 'Birdeater'.
“I’m not going to ask a producer ‘can I get a bra under this see-through top?’ when I can see they’re already really stressed.”
Michela Carattini, an actor and intimacy coordinator with a background in psychology and domestic violence advocacy work, says it’s an industry that doesn't particularly empower actors.
"Often actors are the least powerful people in the room and can either be or feel that they are very replaceable and that it's not a space where it's safe for them to say 'no',” she told The Feed.
Michela behind the scenes working as an intimacy coordinator.
"Even for their future work, because it's reputation-based industry. That has meant people with money and the decision-making power easily had the ability to exploit, to coerce, to harm without any fear of repercussion and to continue doing it."
‘I didn’t know that my options weren't ‘yes’ or ‘no’’
Shabana says with regards to potential intimacy concerns on set, there's a lot to remember, organise and feel empowered to speak up about on her own.
“I didn’t know that my options weren’t just ‘yes’ or ‘no’, that pressure or positioning of hand placement, for example, could be slightly changed.”
Shabana said while she could voice any concerns to some of the other crew on set, having an intimacy coordinator meant any issues were addressed thoroughly.
“Without someone specifically there to take care of intimacy, it falls through the cracks every single time,” Shabana said.
“It's so freeing to have intimacy coordinators on set.”
Shabana recalls one time on set when she played a character who was in a coercive relationship.
"He (her acting partner) didn't want to ever overstep. You could tell he was struggling to make choices that were really bold and struggling to really act," Shabana said.
"We talked about places on my body that I was happy for the camera to see, versus places on my body I was happy for the other actor to see, places on my body I was happy for him to touch.
"With Michela in the room, he was able to feel free to make whatever choices he wanted because he knew that he would never overstep."
Both Michela and Chloe were trained through the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) accredited programs. The guild is the leading organisation to accredit training programs.
In late April, Michela's organisation 'Key Intimate Scenes' became the first to offer a SAG-AFTRA accredited training program in Australia, which she hopes will make the work and use of an intimacy coordinator more accessible.
Both Michela and Chloe trained abroad, with the latter shadowing Ita O'Brien, the intimacy coordinator who worked on Sally Rooney's novel-to-screen adaptation, 'Normal People.'
The drama series, a coming-of-age story that followed the close and intimate relationship of a young couple, was one of the shows which brought the role of intimacy coordinators into the spotlight after cast members discussed working with Ita during interviews.
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in 'Normal People'.
One of the leads in the drama, Daisy Edgar-Jones, said having Ita on set was hugely helpful.
"She just created an environment that was incredibly safe and there was no pressure involved, " .
"We always knew that we were able to be honest, if we weren't comfortable with anything, we were never going to be pushed.
"It's a very vulnerable place to put yourself in and to know that you have someone who is looking out for you ... ultimately makes the work better."
'Best practice was not happening in the industry'
A week before the #MeToo movement was cast squarely into the spotlight with allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, actor and dancer turned-intimacy coordinator Chloe was wrapping up a safety survey as the president of Actors Equity in Australia.
The survey for the union was inquiring about sexual harassment and bullying in live theatre and came after a steady stream of anonymous reports from within the industry.
Then the Weinstein allegations broke in October, 2017, with dozens of women accusing the movie mogul of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse over decades. Chloe extended the survey deadline by a week. Responses shot up, increasing by 50 per cent.
“It proved that when people thought they were going to be believed, they were happy to speak up,” Chloe said.
“The survey showed best practice was not happening in the industry - which we already knew - .”
Actor Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in the HBO show, 'Game of Thrones' said she felt uncomfortable acting in some of the nude scenes. Credit: HBO
At least 40 per cent of respondents had experienced sexual harassment in the industry and a similar amount had witnessed it.
Fifty-three per cent of victims and 60 per cent of witnesses said they had never reported sexual harassment, criminal misconduct or bullying. Some were uncertain about where to go. Some feared it would worsen the situation.
After the public reports and findings of the survey, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) created a first-ever code of conduct “to provide a framework for the stage and screen industries when creating, performing or recording performances of intimate scenes” in Australia.
The guidelines, which came after 18 months of industry consultation, stipulate that actors must be informed of, and consent to, every intimate scene and its specific requirements in advance.
The document strongly encourages production companies to hire intimacy coordinators and states that all intimate scenes are to be shot on a closed set.
‘Dealing with actors with lived trauma’
In the past, during scenes of simulated sex, the norm would be to improvise or lightly choreograph the scenes. Those days of making it up along the way are gone.
“These types of scenes can activate past history, can activate traumatic issues in an actor's own life," Michela said.
“We have so much evidence now from psychology neuroscience, that what we do in the pretend space has real effect.”
Chloe adds that the old practice of minimal-to-no choreography also ignores the almost inevitable awkwardness of two people trying to imitate intimacy.
“There is also a strange idea around intimacy that because we know how to hug or kiss people that we want to hug or kiss, we’d know how to do that with someone we've just met,” Chloe said.
“We’re not only talking about options for the actors, but also thinking about realistic storytelling.”
Though leaps have been made in the space, Michela notes there is still some resistance and confusion in the industry on what role she plays.
Some think their presence will sterilise the scene, stifle the actors and remove the organic movements. But it's actually the opposite, she said.
“It’s a surprise for many that it’s a creative opportunity. I don’t really consider myself a safety person."
Proudly, she adds that every person who initially resisted the idea of having an intimacy coordinator on set changed their minds by the end of the production.
"I really love the way one of my clients put it. She's 14 years old and she said to me, ‘You're my bungee cord, so I can jump off the cliff when I'm being creative'."
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit . In an emergency, call 000