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Ita O'Brien: in-demand on-screen intimacy coordinator

·4-min read
Ita O'Brien became an intimacy coordinator in 2014, before the #MeToo movement

Britain's Ita O'Brien is one of cinema's unsung stars, ensuring actors are comfortable filming their most sensitive scenes in a job she has made her own.

The 56-year-old intimacy coordinator has been a key figure behind the sex scenes in acclaimed series such as "I May Destroy You", "Sex Education" and "Normal People".

Preserving the intimacy of an artist filming a rape depiction, setting up a sex scene with a virgin actor and identifying the limits each actor is comfortable with are all issues that O'Brien is regularly confronted with.

A typical conversation she regularly has with stars, she told AFP, goes along the lines: "He is going put his hand here, you put yours there and then you start the fellatio."

She sees her role as one of ensuring "open communication" between the director and the actors on all intimate scenes that may include kissing, nudity or sex.

"This is a process by which we bring our professional structure to intimacy" allowing the on-screen stars to "bring all of the skills of the actor to this moment," she added.

"We agree on a consent of touch and then a clear process by which we choreograph the intimate contact clearly. So it's just like dance."

Each scene will be discussed then rehearsed beforehand, away from the glare of the dozens of people usually present on a set.

"When the camera rolls or they're up on stage, they know that they can perform that intimate contact, knowing where they're going to be touched," she said.

At the heart of her philosophy is consent, in an industry which has been rocked in recent years by sexual assault claims.

Her motto, which she says she often repeats to actors, is "your 'no' is a gift. Tell us your 'no', so that we can trust your 'yes'".

- Safe space -

O'Brien was a dancer in the theatre for 10 years and then an actress for eight before she sensed an opportunity and became an intimacy coordinator in 2014.

It was a pioneering move at a time when actors' consent was little talked about, and before the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse and sexual harassment.

Before then, "if an actor ever said 'no', they'd be a troublemaker, or a diva and they would certainly be worried about losing their job... that's absolutely what the situation was then", she recalled.

In such an environment, she described her early days in the role as "incredibly hard".

"I've had productions where I've been told not to speak to the director," she said.

"I'm serving the director's vision, but the director doesn't want to speak to me because he's a 74-year-old man, who basically doesn't want to acknowledge my existence."

On other occasions, she said she was not allowed on the set because the actors or director did not want her help.

Attitudes have since changed a lot.

The profession is becoming more popular and O'Brien is in high demand, especially after Michaela Coel dedicated her best actress BAFTA win this year for "I May Destroy You" to her.

"Thank you Ita for making a space safe, for creating physical emotional and professional boundaries, so we can make work about exploitation, loss of respect, about abuse of powers, without being exploited or abused in the process," she said.

- 'Internal devastation' -

Coel calls the job of intimacy coordinator "essential".

"I know what it's like to shoot without an intimacy director -- the messy, embarrassing feeling for the crew, the internal devastation for the actor," she explained.

O'Brien said this is true for all intimate scenes, but even more so for rape scenes, in which actors need "a really clear frame for the choreography of the assault, so that they're really anchored in the physical dance".

"The person playing the victim, of course you have to take care of them, but actually the person playing the perpetrator is really having to go to that place in themselves in order to be able to tell their story."

This requires a lot of discussion and rehearsal, honing techniques that allow the actors to "let go, wash away and step back from what you're playing", she added.

"Good communication skills" are therefore essential, she said.

Having someone "immersed in the acting process" and who possesses "a body awareness... so that we can be precise and detailed with body parts" is also required, she added.

Given the growing demand, she is trying to pass on the skills.

"I need to train up more" but "haven't got the capacity to take on more people at the moment," she said.

She plans to train in France soon, celebrating that her role is finally "recognised and understood" even in a country known for its "comfortableness with nudity".

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