• Interviews

The Rise and Necessity of Intimacy Coordinators

Intimacy coordinators are a relatively new but necessary element in the film and television industry which largely came about in 2018. Due to the #Metoo movement it became apparent that a third party on set could ensure the actors’ safety. Many productions now employ intimacy coordinators as a standard practice, particularly for scenes involving nudity or simulated sex. Speaking on the phone with Jessica Steinrock, who has worked on such productions as Yellowjackets, and Little Fires Everywhere, as well as Felicia Armstrong, who comes from an acting background in her native Sweden, and as an intimacy coordinator, who has worked on short films including AFI and LMU productions, it is evident that the use of such intimacy coordinators is a positive step towards creating a safer and more respectful environment for all involved in the production of film and television. 

Regarding how one finds themselves in this unusual line of work, Steinrock said, “My background is in improv and standup comedy. I was in instances where someone I’d never met was lifting me up in a scene, and that’s something I really value about non-scripted theater is that without a script, we can go all these crazy places and we can be all these characters, and I think that’s really beautiful. But I also knew that there had to be some way to maintain my personal autonomy,” she explains. “It was just this unspoken thing that when we get to [the scene], we’ll get to it, but we’re just not going to talk about it.”

Steinrock founded Intimacy Directors and Coordinators, an extensive training organization for intimacy professionals globally. She says of the necessary attributes coordinators need in order to be effective, “We recommend that folks have a background in performance, so they understand the industry they’re working in. They also need knowledge of mental health, trauma stewardship, trauma response, and then having a background in movement and choreography is really important. We are there to help make sure those scenes look as good as they can possibly look, so those are generally the three main areas of skill sets we really encourage folks to know as far as mental health, consent, and power, how a set works or how a theatrical space works, and then a background improvement.”

Armstrong talks about communicating with an actor who might feel uncomfortable about an intimate scene. “As Intimacy Coordinators we observe the actor’s behavior, including signs of triggers, excessive un-comfortability, and dissociative behaviors. We also actively ensure each actor’s boundaries are upheld while shooting. If an actor wants to establish a word or a signal when they need us to step in, we will respect that request and do precisely that.”

But even so, there must be times when intervening is necessary. Steinrock says, “Sure. There are miscommunications all the time where someone thought something was okay, but then it wasn’t, or someone changed their mind. There are lots of obstacles that can come up. I always assume best intentions, and so when I’m intervening, it’s simply to clarify a boundary, to slow something down and say, ‘Hey, let’s make sure we really fully have this in our bodies before we go at full pace.’

“Or just to make sure that we’ve reaffirmed what those boundaries are and that those scene partners are continuing to build trust with one another in case something did go differently than was otherwise expected. But that’s also one of the beauties of building in those check-ins throughout the process is that we’re doing those check-ins whether or not something did go awry. So, it’s not suddenly, “Oh, there was a mistake, now we have to slow down the process. Now we have to check in.” That’s now part of a normalized part of the process for working on scenes of intimacy.”

Surprisingly, Steinrock asserts that sexual scenes involving violence aren’t very different from traditional love scenes. “I would say it’s actually not as different as I think people think. For me though, the biggest thing is when we’re doing any kind of scene of intimate violence, we have to take that much more care to really scaffold the work we’re doing to be prepared in case someone does have any kind of history of trauma or violence. That’s something we do need to be very, very careful about.”

It’s an unfortunate reality that had intimacy coordinators been present years ago it would have prevented much trauma and even assault. Armstrong weighs in: “Absolutely. I do believe that a lot of trauma and assault would have been prevented if Intimacy Coordinators had been around earlier. The fact that actors have been forced to figure out physically vulnerable scenes on their own, on the spot, and sometimes in front of a camera is shocking,” she says. “In addition, we can’t shy away from the power dynamics on a film set and the trauma that the cast and crew may hold. At the end of the day, a set is a workspace, and everyone should have the right to feel safe, heard, and respected at work.”