Entertainment

How is a love scene like a stunt sequence? Both need safeguards, say intimacy co-ordinators

In the past few years, the entertainment industry has seen a harsh spotlight cast on many of its practices — including its treatment of actors performing in scenes involving nudity and simulated sex. Enter one of the most sought-after new figures: An intimacy co-ordinator.

'My motto is just no surprises,' says Toronto-based intimacy co-ordinator

Intimacy co-ordinator Lindsay Somers, second from left, works with actors to block out the choreography of an intimate scene at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. (Alice Hopton/CBC)

This story is part of #MeToo 2020, a CBC News series examining what's changed since the start of the #MeToo movement two years ago and how the trial of disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein will impact the future of the movement.

Imagine you're an actor who landed a guest stint on an established TV show. You've seen the script — it includes an intimate scene with another performer — and signed a contract to play the role. But the day you arrive on set to film your scene, there have been some last-minute rewrites.

By the way, now you won't be wearing pants. 

It may have been a decision that went through multiple approvals and sign-offs: writers, producers and the director, with notes passed down through to production and wardrobe.

But you're only finding out at the last minute. Are you OK with this? If you're uncomfortable, do you speak up and risk losing this gig? Or getting blacklisted from future roles?

Since the avalanche of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and other powerful figures began two years ago, the entertainment industry has seen a strong spotlight cast on many of its practices — including the treatment of actors performing in scenes involving nudity and simulated sex.

Enter what's become one of the most sought-after new jobs in the film, television and theatre industry: Intimacy co-ordinators.

These production consultants are being enlisted to help choreograph scenes involving nudity or sexual content, as well as to liaise with and provide on-set support for actors in these scenes. All HBO, Amazon Studios and Netflix productions, for instance, now have intimacy co-ordinators.

But how does it work?

What does an intimacy co-ordinator do? 

"My motto is just no surprises. We should have a very clear plan, before we get to set, about what's going to happen," said Lindsay Somers, a Toronto-based intimacy co-ordinator who has worked on TV shows such as Designated Survivor and productions by HBO and Amazon Studios.

WATCH: Lindsay Somers explains how intimacy co-ordinators work alongside directors.

Toronto-based intimacy co-ordinator Lindsay Somers details how she works with directors, producers and actors on creating intimate scenes for film and television. 1:07

Stunt co-ordinators are nothing new to the industry; intimacy co-ordinators approach their work in a similar way, said Somers.

"We would never strap a harness on a performer and put them at the edge of a wall and say, 'We want you to fall down this shaft naturally, so we're not going to have any plan or choreography. We just want to see how it goes.' We don't do that," she explained.

"So we're not going to do that for [intimate] scenes either. We want to have structures in place and have the boundaries for each performer involved, and [integrate those] into the choreography. Because if we establish the boundaries, then the creativity can flourish without fear." 

WATCH: Lindsay Somers leads actors in getting acquainted and discussing boundaries before working on blocking two scenes involving intimacy.

Lindsay Somers leads actors in sharing their boundaries and getting comfortable with one another before blocking out 2 intimate scenes. 3:34
 

Weren't there protections in place before?

While actors' unions do have rules in place regarding nudity, simulated sex or love scenes — ACTRA has a fact sheet here, for instance, and the Time's Up organization just unveiled federal, state and SAG-AFTRA guidelines for the U.S. in this newly released resource package — following these regulations is often left to the creative leaders on set.

But what one person feels is appropriate might differ from another person's view, said Kathryn Emslie, head of the Actors Conservatory at the Canadian Film Centre.

"It's not necessarily shared by everyone on set in the same way," she said. "Stunt co-ordinating and intimacy coaching are all really important safeguards for actors … because actors will only do their best work when they feel safe."

WATCH: Actor Liz Whitmere shares what she's thinking ahead of shooting an intimate scene. 

Actor, director and producer Liz Whitmere describes what goes through her mind when she's heading into a shoot involving an intimate scene. 'It's all just a series of unknowns.' 1:52
 

What's the benefit for actors?

Liz Whitmere, an actor since the age of nine, worked with Somers for an intimate scene shown in the third season of Designated Survivor. After consulting with the creative team, Somers meticulously laid out to Whitmere detailed parameters about the scene ahead of time, as well as how they would discuss boundaries once on set with her fellow castmate.

"I have never been taken care of in the way that Lindsay took care of me," Whitmere said.

WATCH: Actor Humberly González describes what's different with an intimacy co-ordinator on set.

Actor Humberley Gonzalez describes the difference in working with an intimacy co-ordinator on-set. 1:03

Though just a few years into her acting career, Humberly González has filmed intimate scenes, as well as some stunt work. And in both cases, she values having every movement choreographed.

"Every movement and every touch — whether it's a hand on the shoulder or on the hip — it means something," she said. 

"Intimacy is a really important part of life and I think showcasing it on screen, there's nothing wrong with that. It just has to have a purpose behind it."

Is there training involved? 

Though it is a newer role, there is a professional association behind it: Intimacy Directors International. The group offers training, a mentorship program and official certification.

There are also plans to open a Canadian branch of the group, said Somers. "We want to make sure that those that are getting into it and being involved are being mentors through the program," she said.

Another part of Somers's job this past year has been talking to unions and performers, "to make sure they know we exist, that they know they can ask for us now, and that we are here."

Does an intimacy co-ordinator hinder productions?

Somers admits she's experienced resistance from some, but says her approach is to prep thoroughly and keep the set calm and moving — without rushing. As a positive step, she points to the fact that she and a colleague worked for 30 productions shooting in Toronto this past year.

"Seeing the results from the performers is what keeps me going. Knowing the huge difference that we make for these performers on the shooting day is what keeps me pushing past those people who may want to stop us," she said.

"We are not there to stifle any creativity. We are only there to enhance it."

As an actor, director and producer, Liz Whitmere, right, sees intimacy co-ordinators as invaluable in helping to focus on exactly why a scene is necessary, as well as 'to consider the human behind the performance.' (Alice Hopton/CBC)

Having added directing and producing into her repertoire, Whitmere knows the mountain of considerations, logistics and responsibilities involved with these newer roles — and how an actor's concerns might fall through the cracks.

Still, she feels that bringing intimacy co-ordinators on board ultimately helps creators focus on the storytelling.

"For a director who likes to improvise a lot and play fast and loose with the cameras rolling, or call out redirects during vulnerable scenes or intimate scenes … I can see that person feeling like their creativity is being hindered in some way," she said. "But in fact what's happening is they're being forced to do the work: To figure out the story they're telling before they say, 'Action.'

"Just the fact of having a person there whose job it is to safeguard [actors'] comfort reminds me … to just take a second and consider the human behind the performance."

With files from Tashauna Reid and Alice Hopton