Intimacy Coordination: An Actor Inquires

Actor/Writer Tiffany Hoy


Actor/Intimacy Coordinator Michela Carattini

[The following excerpt is from a transcript of the recorded interview.]

TH: So I'm curious about this - thanks for letting me ask all these questions.

MC: Of course! When people hear that I’m training and working as an Intimacy Coordinator* (IC), they ask me a lot of questions - so ask whatever you want, cause I'm sure others will want to know too!

TH: I guess what you do applies to both theatre and film, am I right?

MC: So there are two internationally agreed terms now. An Intimacy Director refers to somebody who does this work for theatre, and an Intimacy Coordinator refers to somebody who does this work for film and television. And that’s very much following the tradition of the titles of fight director or movement director for theatre, and a fight coordinator or stunt coordinator for film- it’s following the traditions of that language, but in essence they fulfil the same role in those two different mediums.

TH: So you’re focussing on the film- the coordinator- role?

MC: Yeah, I work mainly in film and television.

TH: So when do you come on board during the production?

MC: Good question. The answer is, as soon as possible. Ideally, people are thinking about whether they need an IC from pre-pre production, just looking at those scenes and thinking, do we need to put aside budget for wardrobe to provide barriers or coverings for people, do we need to put in the budget to be able to pay an IC the same way we would for a stunt coordinator? An IC can be really helpful in terms of best practice for running auditions and how to inform the actors from the very beginning around what the role will involve and having those conversations around expectations, consent and the director’s vision from the very beginning, so later on we avoid more difficulties.

TH: Are you like an expert in covers now?

Alicia Rodis photographed for Variety
MC: Am I an expert in covers, is that what you asked? (Laughing) Well look, I know a lot more about covers than I ever did before, I can say that. My mentor in the United States is Alicia Rodis, she’s head of HBO intimacy coordination and one of the founders of Intimacy Directors International (IDI). So when I was in NY she showed me her kit which is this awesome collection of pieces, many of them custom cut to be hidden from the camera from particular angles but at the same time provide that essential coverage for the protection and modesty of the actor or to provide a barrier between actors. The rule is that people’s genitals should never be touching, as well as working around the specific container of consent for those specific actors in very creative ways, and knowledge of the camera and cinematic technique is really important for this reason.

TH: Have you got a list of angles and tricks to make it look like something’s happening that’s not?

MC: Yeah, it’s a really interesting aspect that an IC brings to the work that people may not realise-- that specific knowledge, training and experience around those kinds of movements and those kinds of scenes for camera. Because something can be happening in real life, but it can still not look like it on camera or it doesn’t have the same effect on camera that a director was hoping for. As actors know as well, you might be standing what feels too close to someone, but on camera it looks miles apart- well the same thing applies for these sorts of scenes, and it’s part of our job to have experience with what can work in these types of scenes, in terms of wardrobe and movements.

Team IDI
TH: Probably equally important to those physical covers are the emotional covers. How much prep do you get to do, especially on those lower budget productions?

MC: We ask for at least one rehearsal with the director and actors, where we can have a discussion about boundaries, the intent of the scene, the key physical and emotional anchor points, and outline the choreography of the scene. Though tweaking may still be necessary on location, doing this work beforehand saves precious time on the shoot.

TH: Are you having conversations with actors before that rehearsal, or are they whispering in your ear, ‘Michela, I feel weird about this!’

MC: (Laughing) Yes, we have meetings with the actors privately before that rehearsal - it’s necessary that it’s private in order to try and mitigate certain power dynamics. Something we try and communicate to directors, producers, and actors with power, is that no matter how kind, compassionate, wonderful and open they are, by virtue of their position, it is very difficult for an actor to say no to them. It’s very much a reputation-based industry, and actors are worried that they’re replaceable and are generally trained to say yes. An intimacy coordinator is that third person who can have that conversation with all the actors involved and present to the team a container within which we can work and come up with creative ideas and choreography that will still serve the director’s vision. Some actors haven’t thought about what their boundaries are. Sometimes tough guys will say, ‘yeah, I don’t have any boundaries’ which ends up not being true, they just hadn’t thought about it before. Our work tries to remove the idea that the comfort levels and boundaries rest on one person who can be ‘blamed’ - which is why we use the term ‘container,’ within which everyone involved is consenting. And boundaries require no justification. And they can change. Consent is reversible. I know that’s scary for a lot of directors, but a lot of the work we do helps to minimize issues around this. Actors have said to me they were actually willing to do more than they otherwise would have without an IC, because they felt safer or more sure of the other actor’s consent.

TH: I was watching a video of this lady in the U.S. who seems to be credited with starting it all- I think her name is Ita- the one who did Sex Education for Netflix- and she was on set ‘OK, and now do this, and now do that’- is that what’s happening when you have an IC on set with you? It almost sounded like a guided meditation! I thought, I could go with that.

MC: (Laughing) So Ita O’Brien, who is my mentor in the U.K., is based in London, and founder of Intimacy On Set.** Here in Australia, guidelines are being developed by MEAA (Equity) as well. I’m on that development panel, as are many other relevant stakeholders, and we’re certainly taking from the best practices of other countries, including Intimacy On Set Guidelines and IDI’s.

Ita O'Brien
As for your question about whether all ICs recite or cue the action, there are different processes and different approaches for different ICs and different projects. That’s not to say that aren’t procedures and processes that we all follow, but it’s flexible, and can adapt to the particular process of a director or actors as well. Sometimes directors have clear choreography in their head, and it can happen that way, it doesn’t have to be the IC coming up with the choreography. I’ve experienced a director coming up with choreography, but then when they see it in the shot, it doesn’t look the way they wanted, and they say, ‘can you fix this?’. An IC can be very involved, as you saw in that video with Ita, or they can step back, and only step in when required. I step in when I see I can be helpful or it’s needed. You have to be able to get out of the way really fast on set and know how and when to step in. Your job helps free up everyone else to do theirs.

TH: A lot of actors feel like they want to be creatures of spontaneity, is there still room for that?

MC: Yes. One of the tenants of our work that there is choreography for intimate touching, so that -just like with fight choreography- actors will not have to worry about their physical safety, and will be freed up to be emotionally vulnerable, spontaneous and stay in character. We discourage actors from changing the agreed choreography without discussion and consent- not just for safety, but also for continuity, for camera, for story. However, there is absolutely room to come up with a new idea, and for that new idea to be discussed and embraced. It’s important not to assume- something that might seem casual and harmless to one person, might not be to somebody else. One never knows what emotional or physical trauma another actor brings with them to set on any given day, so It’s about creating a culture of communication, consent and safety where anything is possible within that frame.

TH: Why did we not do this before? Why did we just wing it?

MC: I know, as an actor myself, I think, I wish I’d had this! I think this area has been an awkward subject for  people- it feels like a personal thing and people tend to just put it to the side. We haven’t had language in the industry to address some of the issues and some of the occupational hazards we have to deal with both physically and emotionally. Bringing that knowledge and language into the conversation is an important part of what we do. Everyone does all this work for characterization, and somehow that all gets left behind in the intimate scenes. People bring in their personal selves all of a sudden: how would I kiss in this situation? Or the director says, ‘This is what I think good sex looks like.’ It’s not putting the story-telling first they way you would in every other aspect, in every other scene. How would the character express their sexuality? What is the geographical and cultural context of the character? What is the personality of the character? What does the scene need to communicate? We keep everyone accountable to the director’s vision by putting those questions at the forefront, bringing all that work into the intimate scenes as well, when previously the tendency has been to throw it out the window in those moments.

Film still from Remote Access

TH: That makes complete sense, and it’s so interesting - what an extra element of research you could do for your character!

MC: Yeah! Looking at time period, geography, culture and personality in the intimate space can be particularly fascinating and lead to really interesting character choices, increasing your vocabulary beyond your own experience. Creatively, it’s a far cry from two actors having to awkwardly come up with something on the spot, and it’s another tool for actors to be able to separate themselves from character and mitigate some of that spillage from carrying your character with you. Having that professional language, that vocabulary of choices, the training and the experience really facilitates that conversation - it’s a creative role, we’re not babysitters.

TH: I have to ask an awkward question, but this interview would not be complete without asking it. Bodies being bodies, what happens if someone gets aroused?

MC: Yeah, absolutely that happens, that’s a natural thing that happens sometimes when you’re touching another person. One of my favourite quotes on this subject, attributed to some famous actor or another, is: “If I get an erection, I’m sorry, and if I don’t get an erection, I’m sorry.” It’s not something we make a big deal out of, but we offer barriers, and a word to stop the action if the actors feel is neccessary - just as we would if someone had to vomit or had a panic attack. Coming from a Mental health background, I’m across that there’s so much coming out in the research about the real physiological effects of the pretend and imagined spaces- it can have many of the same effects of a lived experience. We all have or know stories of actors who had a hard time separating from a character or a character attachment. It’s being acknowledged for the first time in an evidence-based way that there is an emotional and physical load that comes with the work we do. I’m particularly interested in helping actors strategize to minimize that spillage.

TH: What do those strategies look like? Like a closing ceremony after the shoot?

Film still from Tendenza ad Amar
MC: If that works for you! It can look different for different people. I draw from psychology, social work, neuroscience, criminology, trauma studies and many other areas and offer them, based on the person and situation. I tell people to use what calls to them, and don’t use what doesn’t - and sometimes people are surprised by what works for them - not the ones they expected! Different things will work for different people, and be salient to different people. At the very least giving acknowledgement that this is a real thing that can manifest in different ways, give language and validation of it, as well as those potential strategies to minimize it if they would like to. That’s my intention and an area I’m particularly interested in.

TH: Thank you for being one of the torch-bearers of this here in Australia!

MC: You’re welcome! It’s still a very new field, and there will be mistakes made, but I’m so excited about the difference I see it making, creatively and humanistically. You know, I think sometimes you’re most interested, and you study and you learn, the things you most need. I’ve been an actor for over twenty years, and my study has also come out of the need I’ve seen for myself and my colleagues in the industry, struggling with these various issues. I’ve been able to take the different parts of my professional life and put them together in this unique way. You never know where your life is leading- sometimes you have a moment where you’re like, oh, this all kind of fits together in a way I never imagined. It’s wonderful for me to feel like I have so much to offer in this space, and I would love to share it and be of use to other storytellers. That’s always something that’s been important to me.


* More information on Michela and Intimacy Coordination here.
**Ita started developing the Intimacy On Set Guidelines in 2014, bringing together best practice from around the world, including working with Jennifer Ward-Lealand, President of Actors Equity New Zealand.The Intimacy On Set Guidelines advocate for open communication and transparency when working with intimate scenes, providing a structure that allows for agreement and consent of touch and a process through which intimacy can be clearly choreographed. Ita was invited by the Equity Foundation to share the work across Australia and New Zealand in November- December 2018, INTIMACY ON SET AND STAGE WITH ITA O’BRIEN, including WORKSHOPS FOR ACTORS AND DIRECTORS for SCREEN & STAGE, & AN INTRODUCTION TO INTIMACY DIRECTION: FOR POTENTIAL INTIMACY COORDINATORS, during which over 800 practitioners attended the events.

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