As a society, we’re in the midst of a redefinition of what it means to be “smart.” The dehumanizing effects of relentless algorithmic optimization and data-driven thinking have brought into sharp relief the value of emotional intelligence (commonly referred to as “EQ”) as a key leadership skill and a springboard to not only individual success, but collective success as well.
With an eye toward this welcome sea change, we’ve partnered with our friends at Lexus on a series of interviews with inspiring individuals who are forging new paths and leading their respective industries with empathy and EQ at the forefront of their work.
Today’s subject: Ita O’Brien, an intimacy coordinator for film and television and key player in reshaping the entertainment industry’s practices regarding intimate content. O’Brien has worked on a multitude of high-profile (and highly celebrated) projects that feature prominent themes of sex and intimacy, including Netflix’s Sex Education, HBO’s I May Destroy You and Hulu’s Normal People, and is the founder of the consultancy/advocacy organization Intimacy on Set that works with major studios all over the world. We spoke with O’Brien about ushering in a new era of communication, boundaries and safety around intimate content that the industry has lacked for far too long.
InsideHook: If you had to boil it down to just a few words, what is the role of an intimacy coordinator?
Ita O’Brien: An intimacy coordinator is a practitioner who brings a professional structure and skill to creating intimate content, just like a choreographer would bring their skill to a dance, or a stunt coordinator would bring their skill to creating a fight.
Was there a catalytic moment where you knew that this was a field that you wanted to pursue or sort of pioneer to a certain extent?
It’s a yes and no answer. My journey in this profession has been that I trained in ballet from the age of three. I ended up working as a musical theater dancer for 10 years. I then retrained as an actor, worked as an actor for eight years, and then did an MA in Movement Studies and worked as a movement teacher and movement director. In between being a dancer and an actor, I had trained myself in holistic massage and reflexology. And then I was writing my own work.
I was looking at taking that work further and I wanted to explore the dynamic of the perpetrator and victim, how very often someone who’s been a victim flips into the perpetrator, and I wanted to explore that dynamic in a devised way. In my preparation for that exploration, I was then thinking, “What do I need to do as a practitioner to make sure that I’m putting in place practices and principles so that my actors could be present, connected with themselves, connected with each other and connected with the space, so that they could then, in a really mindful way, step into exploring either side of that dynamic.
That was my focus. And I actually started running workshops. The epiphany was, “How do I keep my actor safe in this exploration?” And the outcome was that when I was speaking to the head of movement at one of the major drama schools, she was saying, “I’ve suddenly got so many more plays with all my student actors with sexual content, and there’s no structure to do it well. Please come and start teaching the structures that you’re creating to my actors so that we can start to make this work in the best way possible.” That was the beginning of then codifying it.
I taught the work and then of course there’s feedback from the students, so over the years we’ve obviously honed it, refined it and made it more streamlined so that it was more effective. Anyway, the students started to say, “Okay, this is great in drama school. What about in professions?” So I spoke to Equity (Ed note: the UK actors union) in 2017 to sort of start to get the work established, and then Weinstein happened. And the environment of the industry, you saw that flip. The industry going, “We can’t turn a blind eye as we have done for years. We can’t allow predatory behavior to continue. We have to be seen, and we have to actually behave in a better way.”
So therefore, all theaters and film companies then created a code of conduct, which is basically setting out how to work with respect. Then within that environment, the industry was going, “Now the intimacy, how do we do the intimacy well?” And I was there to say, “Here. I’ve already created the Intimacy On Set Guidelines. Here is a structure for a professional process to work with respect and allow everybody to make the best work.” Just like a dancer will have a choreographer bringing a skill of how to do a tango, or fight directors have a skill, we’re doing exactly the same with intimate content. That was the beginning of it.
At what stage do you think it is most helpful for your process to enter a production? Are there any examples that have worked really well?
So on Sex Education, at the beginning of production, [producer] Jon Jennings and [director] Ben Taylor were saying, “We’ve got a young cast,” and I said, “Look, the best thing is for me to share the process with the whole of the production, and then it’s understood — rather than me just working with the actors, and then the DOP not knowing, or the ADs not knowing, or the director even not knowing.” So that’s what I offered, and that’s what they did, and it works really well. Actually, I’ve got one of my practitioners who’s on Season Three right now, and he was commenting how lovely it is to be on a production in which now, in the third season, the process of intimacy guidelines is just inherent.
It’s been part of it from the very beginning.
That’s right. There’s no pushback. The time and space is made for the process of clear conversations, check-ins, and most importantly, rehearsal period. But other productions, the producer will call me in, I’ll speak to a director. And sometimes I’m given the time and space to share the work across the production, and interestingly enough, all the ones that I have been given that time and space have been the ones that actually ended up being the most acclaimed productions of the year.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced in terms of educating this industry that is maybe entrenched in its “old way” of doing things?
There’s a lot to do because while we have a new world post-Weinstein with Time’s Up and Me Too, there are still a lot of people who liked it as it was, aren’t interested in changing and also feel threatened. I was on a most amazing production — and I’m very proud of being part of it — but boy was it challenging for all the things that you’re asking. The producer in a way didn’t endorse me. I was introduced to one actor but one of the other actors, the producers never even introduced me. It was like the production was saying, “Well, you’re here for the girl, right?” And I’m saying, “You wouldn’t say to a stunt coordinator, ‘Here, talk to the guy who’s playing the goody. Make sure he’s all right. Forget about the guy who’s playing the baddy.’” But that was their mindset and they didn’t really get out of it. It’s challenging, because while I’m delighted to be there, the fact that I’m there at all is great, but it’s challenging to bring the best of the skills that I can bring while basically being handicapped. It’s like being a stunt coordinator trying to do your job with your hand tied behind your back when you know that you need to put crash mats down.
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I feel as thought that analogy of a stunt coordinator or dance choreographer is very apt — it seems obvious that a similar role would be needed for sexual scenes.
There’s been a shift in the industry, where people say, “It’s so obvious. Why wasn’t it in place before now?” My awareness is that the influence will be, “We need someone with a skill to teach a tango because we know that everybody doesn’t walk down the street knowing how to tango. We know that if we put a sword in someone’s hand, everybody doesn’t know really good swordplay.” But we think that everybody knows how to do sex. That’s where the mistake comes because we all have our own sexual expression, but we don’t want to see that person’s sexual expression telling that story — invariably, it doesn’t tell the story of the character.
Just as with a dance, we’re going, “What’s this moment? Who are these characters, and therefore, what’s the physicality that tells the right storytelling?” That means skill, and it’s a movement skill. And then of course, just like a stunt, there’s a risk of injury. What you’ve taken care of is the possible emotional and psychological injury if someone is touched and handled in a way that isn’t right for them, or indeed, body parts that might be triggering for them. That needs to be given agreement and consent.
We don’t need to know what the story is [behind it]. We don’t want to know why there’s a “no” as part of your boundaries for a body part, but we do need to make space. So that’s a safety, just as with a stunt coordinator. You’re not going to fall from a high building without putting a crash mat down. That was where post-Weinstein — and here we come to emotional intelligence — the idea of emotional and psychological injury was listened to and heard for the first time.
What does the process look like in terms of establishing those boundaries with the actors?
We talk about the emotional content, the emotional awareness. My journey has been in this profession, as I’ve told you, from musical theater dancer to trained actor. You read your script, you pull it apart, you interrogate it. “Why is the story there? What’s the emotional storytelling? What does the character want? What stops them from getting them what they want? Where does that sit in the body?” Once you’ve done all of that interrogation and that’s absolutely cool, it’s the director’s vision along with what the actors offer — and that’s where, as the intimacy coordinator, I’m just present. Very important for me to be there, but I’m listening not just to what they’re saying, but to what they’re doing. I suppose that’s what you’re talking about with emotional intelligence.
I say, “Your no is a gift. We invite your no. It’s really important that we know your no. That we know your boundaries, so that your yes can be trusted.” Any clear structure gives freedom. Actually having a clear boundary allows you to be free within that. I always say the work is like an iceberg where the body of the work is actually in all of that preparation, all of those conversations with the producer, director, with the actors. All of that connecting in, all of that sharing of the process, rehearsing so that everybody knows the choreography, it means that the day on set, everybody’s relaxed, comfortable. They feel autonomous, empowered, respected, and then it means that everybody can bring their skill. The directors bringing their skill. The actors bringing the best of their skill to the intimate content.
The old way, where things happen on set and people are thrown on set and expected to create things — of course, no one ever creates anything well if they’re surprised, or coerced, or something is asked of them that’s outside of their agreement and consent in the moment. You don’t even have to worry about that, because it’s been listened to, heard. We create that clear physical structure and repeat it so it’s a body memory.
Just like any choreography, if someone starts to teach you a waltz, there’ll be two left feet. Once you’ve done it two or three times, bang! You’ve done it forever. And then [the actors] can forget about what the physical choreography is doing, they can forget about whether they are personally okay, whether their partner is personally okay, because all of that has been listened to, heard and considered. Then as the artists, they’re able to just release into it and give their all.
Can you think of any moments that you found particularly gratifying, where you felt the process was really working?
Have you seen I May Destroy You?
I have, but don’t tell me how it ends because I’m not all the way through it yet.
Okay. Have you seen the threesome with Kwame?
Okay. That scene with the threesome, yeah? From consensual sex, but that consensual sex is full-on, isn’t it?
But then it turns into something different.
That’s right. That was one of the ones that we rehearsed in August 2019 with Michaela [Coel, the show’s creator] there — honoring her, the director and writer. What was written was one thing, and then Michaela goes, “Oh, but it’s this and it’s that, and it’s that.” And I’m going, “Oh, hold on a minute. You have every single detail clear in your head but it’s not written down.” She goes, “Oh, but I didn’t want to write that.” But I was going, “Great! That’s what we honor. You tell us that detail and that’s what we honor.”
So it started from really getting clarity with those beautiful men, going through the process in the rehearsal period, making sure the physical positions were right, that they got comfortable with the agreement and consent, what the choreography was. And then in particular, into the assault, with making sure that, again, the physical structure was really, really held and clear, so that the actors could release themselves in that scene. I love it that Paapa [Essiedu, who plays Kwame] has said in interviews that that’s one of the scenes he’s most proud of. And also he’s commented that it was far easier to perform it as the actor because we were held within that structure, than it was to actually come back and watch it as an audience member seeing what that character was going through. That’s when you go, “Yes! I’ve done my job well.”
Are there particular elements of your work that you feel are really applicable to other professions or just life in general?
For me, especially during this lockdown period, where I’m here in my family home and here I’m at my desk — here’s me advocating for clear boundaries and “your no allows freedom, allows you to be respected and empowered.” For me here, how our space within our home has become challenged because it’s not just our time to come in and relax, it’s our workspace when we’re in lockdown.
I still haven’t got it right, but just advocating for clear boundaries allows you to be freer, to be more healthy, and I’m actually trying to put that in place more within my own home. My daughter says, “You’re here, but we still don’t see you.” So trying to really practice putting clear boundaries in place — honoring my downtime and my personal time as well as honoring me as a professional person, and continuing to become healthier around that. Still I’m journeying on that in myself just as I’m advocating for that in the profession.