‘Hightown’ and ‘Sex Education’ Intimacy Coordinators Talk Ensuring Comfort and Care for Actors

Hightown The Deuce Sex Education
Hightown: Dana Hawley/Starz; Deuce: Paul Schiraldi/HBO; Sex Education: Sam Taylor/Netflix

Marci Liroff wants you to know one thing for certain: “This is not porn. This is make-believe.”

Liroff worked as the intimacy coordinator on Season 2 of the Starz drama “Hightown,” which features plenty of sex and stripping — but did not have anyone to coach those scenes in the first season.

“I thought they did a terrific and convincing job in the first season without an intimacy coordinator,” she tells Variety. “But I knew I could make it better.”

Intimacy coordinators started to be more in demand after #MeToo era conversations about sexual misconduct on film and TV sets expanded to include the ethics and protocol surrounding on-screen sex. Notably, “The Deuce” star Emily Meade approached HBO in 2018 about needing someone to help manage the physical demands of acting in a show about sex work. This led to the well-publicized hiring of intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis.

Liroff worked in film and TV for decades as a casting director, until she went looking for what she calls her “second act,” a chance to use her skills for something new, when she read about Rodis.

“I just started digging deeper and deeper,” Liroff says. “And it led me to a woman named Amanda Blumenthal, who was the first intimacy coordinator in Los Angeles. Her first job was ‘Euphoria’ — they threw her into the deep end of the swimming pool.”

Riveted by how Blumenthal managed to facilitate such intense sexual content while maintaining safety and comfort for the actors on set, Liroff decided that intimacy coordination was the job for her. She learned that Blumental had begun a six-month program to train others for the same job and joined the course’s second cohort.

“It’s in my DNA to speak up for those that don’t have a voice,” Liroff says. “In casting, I’ve always been protecting actors and trying to set a scenario for them to be as good as they can be.”

British intimacy coordinator David Thackeray, who worked on Season 3 of the Netflix comedy “Sex Education,” began his entertainment career as an actor and director, working across several short films and plays. Then he learned about Ita O’Brien, who is arguably the industry’s premier intimacy coordinator. She pioneered the position after beginning her career as a movement director and making headlines for helping build the critically lauded sex scenes in the Seasons 1 and 2 of “Sex Education,” Hulu’s “Normal People” and the HBO limited series “I May Destroy You.”

A major factor in Thackeray’s decision to pursue this line of work was his own negative experiences acting in intimate scenes.

“I had to be fully nude on stage as an actor once. I was promised a closed rehearsal that didn’t exist,” he says. “I ended up doing it in tech [and in front of the full cast and crew], rather than in the actual rehearsal space. It wasn’t done properly.”

The work begins in pre-production. First, an intimacy coordinator will meet privately with a director or producer to assess the goals of each intimate scene. Liroff doesn’t only focus on body parts and sex acts: “Sometimes it’s passionate, hot and crazy. Sometimes it’s very loving and sensual,” she says. Aspects like tone and pace are important to get consent on, too.

The next meetings happen one-on-one between the coordinator and actor, without any filmmakers present. “We were taught in our training to get what we call ‘enthusiastic consent,’ ” Liroff says. “If I ask an actor, ‘Are you OK with your partner squeezing your nipple?’ And the actor says, ‘Uh … um … OK, yeah.’ I’m going to take that as a no. I want to see that they are fully comfortable with this.”

Then, the coordinator works with attorneys to write nudity riders for the actors’ contracts, so that the production is accountable for respecting performers’ boundaries.

The intimacy coordinator’s involvement in choreography varies from set to set; some filmmakers direct the movement themselves with the coordinator’s supervision, while others step back and ask the coordinator to handle it all. This point of the process often involves collaboration with the costume, makeup, prop, stunt and camera departments.

“A lot of what we’re doing is cheating and masking, so that it looks really good, but they’re not actually doing the act,” Liroff says. “Part of that is the modesty garments that we help actors choose and sometimes put on [for them], and the barriers that we might bring to a scene. Those could be pieces of foam that we attach to the actors, or sometimes a small Pilates ball that most of the air is taken out of, and we can put that in between them. Sometimes I use bra inserts or a little pillow. We’ve all gotten very, very creative.”

Only cast and crew members absolutely essential to the intimate scenes are permitted to see what’s happening: this means no set photographers are allowed to attend and that on-set monitors must be tented so that only approved personnel can see each shot.

The most complex part of intimacy coordination is attempting to gauge all the nuances in the room during a shoot. Thackeray says the listening skills he developed as an actor help him intuit whether a performer may need some additional support to continue — or even whether the shoot needs to stop altogether.

“You have to be able to shift all the time. Really sense the mood of the room,” he says. “That’s why conversations beforehand are so important, because then you know how you’re going to [feel] when working that day. But then again, when you come in, that may have changed. The artist may have had a really bad morning. Maybe their nerves are showing in a different way. [It’s important to be] aware of when you can have a joke and have fun and when it is time to deliver. Do we need to move the scene a little bit quicker here? Do I need to check in? And there’s also over-checking. If you ask somebody if they’re OK [too many] times, they’ll start questioning if they are OK. It is delicate.”

Ultimately, that delicacy is there to enable good acting.

On her experience working with O’Brien while starring in Hulu’s “Conversations With Friends,” star Alison Oliver tells Variety: “You know the choreography and physicality of what you’re going to do, and so there’s muscle memory there. You can actually just go in and play the scene and think about how your character might be thinking in that moment.”

“Hopefully, those scenes are extensions of [the characters’] conversations, rather than there for gratuity’s sake,” adds co-star Joe Alwyn. “It’s an important part of how these two characters communicate. They’re not very good at all at saying how they feel, or even knowing how they feel, but they have this connection physically. It’s often in those moments where they’re able to be freer and more joyful than the way they are with other people around. You can see the sweetness that sometimes gets bottled up.”

The legal jargon, rehearsals and sensitive conversations are all a major part of intimacy coordination. But when it’s done right, those aspects of the job act in service of storytelling — of unbottling the sweetness and other stories sometimes hidden in the sheets.

Emily Longeretta contributed to this story.

(Pictured: “Hightown,” “The Deuce” and “Sex Education.”)