Sex on screen: behind Normal People's acclaimed intimate scenes

How do sex scenes actually work? Ita O’Brien, intimacy coordinator for BBC's Normal People, shares how she coached Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal through their most private moments on set.

Intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien on coaching Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal's simulated sex.

(BBC Three)

Normal People is anything but your normal TV first-love story. The adaptation of Sally Rooney's novel streaming now on CBC Gem, which follows its protagonists Connell and Marianne from high school to adulthood, has received attention for it's long and explicit sex scenes. 

The show is revolutionary in the way it depicts consent, setting boundaries, and a balance between female and male pleasure and desire on screen. This is largely thanks to the work of the show's on-set intimacy coordinator, Ita O'Brien. 

Sex on screen matters for actors and audiences alike. By making actors comfortable behind the scenes, and working with the director's vision, O'Brien was able to create something beautiful. O'Brien's been developing Intimacy On Set Guidelines since 2014, and her debut as an intimacy coordinator was on Netflix's Sex Education

CBC Television spoke with O'Brien on the details of the most integral private moments on the steamy series Normal People

Before #MeToo and #TimesUp

O'Brien has been in the industry for 36 years as an actor and dancer herself. Before the #MeToo movement, there were no guidelines for sex and intimacy on screen.

"There was a sense that as an actor, you should be brave, and you should be happy to be naked and do any sexual content," says O'Brien. 

Ita O'Brien, intimacy coordinator on Normal People. (Sven Arnstein)

But O'Brien views sex as any other stunt or dance, since it is just as risky physically, emotionally and psychologically. 

Simulated sex scenes have often made stars feel pressured, such as in the cases of Game of Thrones Emilia Clarke and or threatened, in the case of Frida star Salma Hayek. In the worst case scenario such as Maria Schneider in The Last Tango in Paris, it can also mean a very real assault. 

In the best-case scenario with a closed set, O'Brien describes sex scenes as being done in an "unconscious place," and that afterwards, actors would meet up and have to act like it never happened. 

Instead, O'Brien says, "I want people to be proud of their work," which is exactly what was accomplished with Normal People's Daisy Edgar-Jones (as Marianne) and Paul Mescal (Connell). 

Watch: How Normal People created Marianne and Connell

Normal People: Creating the Characters

3 years ago
Duration 2:47
Normal People: Creating the Characters

Before Normal People, neither actor had done sex scenes this way, they said in a recent interview with Dazed. Edgar-Jones described the experience with O"Brien:  "Ita was so wonderful. She took the pressure off completely. The scenes ended up being quite positive."

Mescal agreed: "The fact that they put policies and structures in place allowed me to go about doing the things that are really important to the book as honestly as possible. Also, we were given guidelines in terms of the physical blocking, but it never felt like there was a disconnect from the emotional part of the scene – it never felt clinical or creatively dead."

We're inviting the industry to make a 180-degree shift in how it sees sex.- Ita O'Brien

Since conversations started opening up around women's boundaries at work, shifts in the film and TV industry have been taking place. O'Brien believes there should be care every step of the way. 

Ita O'Brien, intimacy coordinator. (Sven Arnstein)

"It's very clear, if you want someone to do a waltz, not everybody knows how to do a waltz, they need to be taught it and choreographed," says O'Brien. 

"If you want to do swordplay, it's clear that not everybody knows how to fight with a sword, they need time to rehearse, everybody needs to be taught techniques, they need a risk assessment, and then choreographed." 

As an intimacy coordinator, O'Brien is present as the actors and directors talk about the scenes, starting with auditions and throughout the production, she steps up and goes through guidelines to make sure there is agreement and consent to touch and choreograph the motions clearly. She makes sure sex is spoken about in open way, using adult language about actions and body parts. 

"Two people are up close and personal, and everybody's comfort zone needs to be taken into consideration but not intrude into a professional space," says O'Brien. 

Choreographing from touch to kisses and condoms. 

The first time Connell and Marianne are intimate together is in the second episode, a sex scene that lasts nine minutes and 24 seconds — or, a third of the entire episode. 

"While Marianne is not sexually experienced yet, she is open. When they are standing opposite each other in complete nudity, Connell reaches forward to Marianne, and she reaches forward to him. It's meant to show the equality between them."

(BBC Three)

"In that beautifully written scene of Marianne's sexual awakening, Connell makes clear that a yes can become a no", says O'Brien. This is showing agreement and consent, which is exactly what O'Brien is putting into place as intimacy coordinators with actors behind the scenes as well. 

"You need to find techniques for putting on a condom, and practice so that that can look real. It's through these details that the audience can stay enjoying these characters through their emotional journey." 

It is in these details that the reality of the intercourse is honoured, says O'Brien, who takes special insight into how these scenes change as Connell and Marianne evolve over the years. 

Flash forward to the sixth episode, Connell and Marianne are a year older, and they've both had different sexual partners. 

"I consider where this character is now, if it is a moment of lust, love, or intellect, and where does it sit in the body? We spoke about how much more the body is in play. How much more could be kissed down to the belly, hands, and the thumbs. There's a real lusciousness present, so we discussed that. Each time, it is honouring where the characters have shifted and changed with the choreography." 

I've worked on productions where I've been told the writers just want to 'out-sex' other programs.- Ita O'Brien

O'Brien says she has her own boundaries when it comes to the shows she chooses to work on. Once, she told a director of a different production that she would not be a part of creating the pornographic scenes they wanted, and they changed their course. 

"I truly believe, if someone wants to see pornographic physicality, they will go to porn. There's nothing wrong with that, that's what it's for. I firmly believe that if someone is watching a drama, they want to invest in character, and while intimate content will be part of that, they don't want to be confronted with pornographic images." 

(BBC Three)

"We can always tell the story of the physicality of the intimate moment with the camera angles, with choreography, focusing on the pleasure of receiving, rather than graphically seeing it."

In contrast, sex is an essential part of story-building in Normal People

"The characters relate to each other verbally, and the times when they can't communicate verbally, they communicate physically. And that's what makes the intimate content so special, says O'Brien, "I knew it was beautiful and integral."