Michaela Coel has used her acceptance speech at the 2021 BAFTA Television awards to shine a light on some of the new heroes of the film and TV industry: intimacy coordinators.
The 33-year-old British actress wrote, co-directed and starred in “I May Destroy You,” a 12-part drama about a young writer seeking to rebuild her life after being sexually assaulted.
At Sunday’s ceremony, the critically acclaimed HBO series won the award for Best Mini-Series, with Coel also taking home the Best Leading Actress gong.
In her acceptance speech, Coel paid tribute to the show’s director of intimacy, Ita O’Brien, crediting her with making it possible to shoot the series, which deals with themes of consent, assault and trauma.
“Thank you for your existence in our industry, for making the space safe, for creating physical, emotional and professional boundaries so that we can make work about exploitation, loss of respect, about abuse of power without being exploited or abused in the process,” Coel said.
O’Brien, author of “Intimacy on Set Guidelines“ — a best-practice guide to approaching simulated sex and nudity– also worked on hit shows including “Normal People,” “Sex Education” and “Gangs of London”.
What is an intimacy coordinator?
The role of the intimacy coordinator is to support the actor in any intimate action on set, such as contact kissing, physical touch, and simulated sex. They often plan, choreograph and liaise with actors and the production team to ensure that those in front of, and behind, the camera feel safe and comfortable with every aspect and stage of the process.
There are several training organizations across the world, including Intimacy Directors and Coordinators in the US and Intimacy for Stage and Screen (formally IDI-UK) in the UK.
And in April this year, the Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) announced plans to launch a registry and provide accreditation for intimacy coordinator training programs, in a bid to create an industry standard for the role.
O’Brien told CNN in an email that intimacy coordinators must possess an in-depth knowledge of the actor-director process, understand power dynamics and need to be trained in pedagogy and intimacy coordination for theater and film.
They need to “have body and choreographic skills and body awareness and anatomy so they can bring clarity to the physical dance,” she explained.
On completion of the basic training, they enter a mentorship program that allows them to put their training into practice in the profession before gaining accreditation.
Why have studios started using them?
The #MeToo movement and increased awareness of abuses of power in film and TV has created demand for intimacy coordinators on set.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal and other incidents of sexual misconduct exposed an industry in which actors’ boundaries were often ignored and where there was rampant misconduct both on and off screen.
SAG-AFTRA said in October 2020 that it had been working to create “safer working conditions for members and the industry as a whole” in the years since the actions of Weinstein — one of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry — came to light.
O’Brien said she believes the “role of the Intimacy Coordinator is key for protecting artists in the creation of intimate content.”
She told CNN: “Our process ensures a safe and professional structure is created, with open communication and consent agreed at all times, within which everyone can bring the best of their professional acting skills to the scene.”
Creating a safe space
In a recent interview with CNN, Elizabeth Talbot, the intimacy coordinator on the wildly popular Netflix series “Bridgerton,” said an “intimacy rider” spells out exactly what an actor is willing to do in a scene.
“With the concept of consent that we work with, of course, if there’s anything where at any point anyone’s like, ‘Oh, you know, I don’t want to do this,’ they never will,” she said. “And it’s also my job to step in front of any director or producer and be like, ‘Hey, you know, like they’re not comfortable with this.’ I’ve been really lucky to work with great directors and producers so that’s never happened.”
“Bridgerton” lead Phoebe Dynevor, who plays Daphne Bridgerton, told Grazia magazine in January this year that she felt “safe” having Talbot on set when she filmed a graphic sex scene.
“It was so great, because it felt safe and fun: you choreograph it like a stunt, or a dance,” she said.
“It’s crazy to me that (an intimacy coordinator) hasn’t been there in the past,” Dynevor said. “I’ve done sex scenes before that I can’t believe I did: it was only five or six years ago, but it would not be allowed now.”