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‘Vida’ Boss Tanya Saracho on Importance of Actor Agency in Sex Scenes

As Hollywood grapples with the lingering fallout of #MeToo and abuse of power on sets, some performers are calling for a industry-wide standard to better protect performers during scenes requiring intimate contact or nudity.

“You won’t want to have to cross your fingers and hope to have someone [with a] beautiful [heart] in charge,” actress Nicki Micheaux said during the “Let’s Talk About Sex (Scenes)” panel at the ATX Television Festival Saturday. “If there’s not industry standards [new actors are at risk]…so you empower the artists to know how [to handle] this.”

“You don’t know what kind of personality you’re running into,” she continued. “Think about how broad the #MeToo movement is. You’re coming in and you’re exposing yourself.”

Moderator Joy Blake, who writes for “Outlander” agreed, but noted they would need help: “I think it requires involvements from unions.”

Alicia Rodis, who is an intimacy coordinator for HBO and belongs to Intimacy Directors International (IDI), acknowledged part of the issue is there isn’t set vocabulary for a number of key issues, including something as simple as a closed set. So on the sets on which she works, the specific details are “always communicated. There’s a bulletin that explains [exactly what it means] and if there are any changes, everyone signs off.”

To keep everyone comfortable, IDI emphasized five key things while filming the scenes: context, communication, consent, choreography, and closure. The latter, Rodis noted, is the most surprising and element that is most often overlooked after scenes are done.

“It looks different for every process. … I work on a few shows there’s a lot of simulated sex that is transactional,” she said. “We put closure in, and it can be anything from a ritual or a moment of closing down that [sequence]. Sometimes it’s handshake, eye contact, or ‘thank your costar.’”

She added: “Just like stunts are coordinated, and hopefully everything else is to a tee, we feel strongly that sex scenes and nudity should be just as coordinated.”

Part of the issue stems from the fact that some scribes simply put vague instructions in for love scenes. “If you script a sex scene, you should script a sex scene,” Blake said. “Like an action scene, it needs to be specific.”

“Vida” creator Tanya Saracho has implemented “very detailed” descriptions into the Stars series’ scripts, in addition to choreographing the scenes a few days in advance. After that, she has kept her door open for the actors to change their mind at any point about their own comfort level. And when the show depicted the “world’s saddest orgy,” Saracho took the step of letting the actress involved pick the actors she wanted to work with.

Even still, “I kept checking in with her,” she said. “On ‘Vida,’ we’re so careful.” Saracho believes that the actors just knowing the can stop the scene if and when they are uncomfortable helps with the sense of safety on-set.

The issue gets even more complicated when it comes to depicting sexual assault on-screen, though, a trope which the panelists agreed is exhausting.

“We’ve been steeped in this kind of culture,” Saracho said. “There are amazing allies who would not use rape [as a plot device]. … I don’t know the answer [to make it stop]. I hope our distaste for it starts to be so big it starts to go away.”

Rodis emphasized the importance of making sure the actors are taken care of mentally, as well as physically. ”I make sure everyone has trauma eduction, mental health first aid,” she said of the people she’s training. “How to help [the people on set] and when to stop.”

And when the darker elements are shown, the women agreed it should be handled responsibly.

“If you’re going to have a rape, I would really prefer to see the woman or the man deal with it in a real way,” Micheaux said, pointing to “Game of Throne’s” Sansa as a character whose rape was minimized. “It’s kind of like you skipped a couple of steps [with her recovery]. I feel like if you’re going to do that, you have the obligation to walk the character through it.”

But until there’s a widespread change, it’s up to individual shows and artists to advocate as best as they can.

“[Change is ] a thing when the industry dictates it’s a thing,” Rodis said.

 

Pictured: Tanya Saracho at the ATX Television Festival

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