HBO’s The Deuce, a series which follows the rise of the porn industry in 1970s New York, does not shy away from sexual content. After the first season of the show, star Emily Meade convinced HBO to require intimacy coordinators — professionals who specialize in making actors feel comfortable and safe during sex scenes — to be present on set during any scenes involving nudity or sexual content. Emily then petitioned for SAG/ AFTRA to make this an industry standard, and just last month they agreed to standardize guidelines for intimacy coordinators on all professional film and tv sets. Read my conversation with Emily below about sex, Hollywood, and how to make sure every actor feels as comfortable as they possibly can when naked in a room full of strangers!
Katie Couric: You are the reason why not just The Deuce, but all HBO sets have intimacy coordinators. Did you feel like the MeToo movement had a direct impact on your feeling able to ask for that?
Emily Meade: Yes, absolutely. The timing worked out where I was already personally grappling with my own experience with sex scenes and sexuality in the work I’ve done, and reevaluating my own feelings on what I’ve been asked to do, and what I felt like doing. At the same time, everything with MeToo was happening, so I felt like that amplified and validated my concerns. So it was kind of a perfect storm, which lead to this climax of me actually asking for things to change.
Katie: Was any part of you nervous that raising your hand to say, “this is something we need on set,” would negatively impact your career?
Emily: Oh yeah. I mean it was terrifying. That fear is a huge part of why I even wanted to start this conversation about intimacy on set- one of the most difficult aspects of filming a sex scene, apart from the physical or technical things that happen, is the emotional element. As an actor, you’re almost trained and conditioned by the industry to feel like you should feel lucky to even be there. So you go out of your way to not create problems, or be a squeaky wheel, or complain about anything. And then when you add sex into it, there’s an embarrassing element that’s added. There’s a vulnerability to admitting that you’re uncomfortable with something. So part of me was terrified of pissing anybody off, terrified of what vocalizing my discomfort would mean for me on the show going forward, terrified of any backlash, and frankly I didn’t want to bother anyone. But a bigger part of me felt like I needed to speak up.
I’ve been asked to do sexual content since the beginning of my acting career, and it’s been a huge burden that I’ve had to carry. A lot ot the time it felt like a curse that I was constantly being asked to do these sex scenes, and my only power was to try to say no and risk losing a part, which I sometimes did. And when I did do the scenes, obviously there was a lot of pain through it. But thank God I went through all of that to get this insight to help try to bring some kind of change. If I hadn’t had those experiences, I wouldn’t be able to be part of the conversation. I decided that I wasn’t doing this just for me, but to set a precedent for other actors. So that kind of outweighed the nervousness. But yes, I was absolutely nervous.
Katie: Tell me about the differences between season 1 when there were no intimacy coordinators and seasons 2 and 3?
Emily: It was night and day. It’s so bizarre- when you’re on a set with an intimacy coordinator, it’s mind boggling to think that you ever did this without one. It’s something that feels so intuitive and necessary. So the second our intimacy coordinator, Alicia Rodis, was there, it was hard to remember what those scenes were like before that.
Long before I was acting, there have been written rules like, “there needs to be a closed set for sex scenes,” or “you need to have nudity waivers and riders,” but written rules ignore the human element. Humans will always break rules. That’s just our nature, for better or worse. So for a long time, I was constantly on the defense during those scenes, or constantly in a protective mode. You feel like you need to constantly be alert and aware, and that you can’t trust anyone in any situation because you have to look out for yourself and make sure your boundaries aren’t crossed. And so the first time I worked with an intimacy coordinator, it was the first time in twelve years of acting that I felt like I finally had a safety net. For me, having Alicia on set resolved pretty much everything. She is there as an unbiased party who isn’t impacted by deadlines or budgets- her only focus is making sure actors feel comfortable and safe.
When there was finally someone there to protect me, I could relax a little bit. And that opened up a new space for creativity, and allowed me to be present and comfortable, and I could find new layers to my performance. I do think there’s a lot of important story telling that can happen through sex and sexuality. Having someone there whose sole job was to create that feeling of safety allowed me to find a whole new level of creativity that I hadn’t had before. It was cathartic. Allowing those scenes to feel real, not just scary and uncomfortable, was wonderful.
Katie: Do you feel like you translate skills you’ve learned from the intimacy coordinator to your own personal life?
Emily: Oh my God yes. It’s actually very funny because I’m the one who fought for this, and then comes my first scene where I had to work with Alicia and the director and the other actor on an intimate scene. We started by all sitting together and going over the scene and discussing consent, and what we were comfortable with. I had to actually look into the eyes of the actor I was doing the scene with and discuss these explicit details of what I was ok with, and I instantly thought, “Ahh! I don’t want to do this! What have I done!” And I came to this realization that both in my work life and in my personal life I have dealt with sexuality by detaching myself. As much as a part of me knew it wasn’t healthy, I had gotten sort of used to that anonymity… where you cope with something by disconnecting or dissociating. There is something so profoundly uncomfortable and terrifying about seeing someone you’re about to do a sex scene with as a human. It was a really wild experience. We started off with some exercises to get us to feel safe, where we had to look directly into each others’ eyes, and give each other permission to touch each others’ legs and arms, and I was so uncomfortable. Not because anyone was making me feel uncomfortable, but because I had to confront my own issues with intimacy. But by the end of the night, I felt so at ease with the other actor. It made it a way better experience once I got over that hump. Working with Alicia helped me to develop trust, even if it’s just momentary.
Katie: Can you tell us about what we can expect for Lori in season 3?
Emily: When we left off with Lori in season 2, she was moving to LA to continue her career in the porn industry after her abusive pimp was killed. We pick up in season 3 and it’s New Years Eve of 1984, so seven years have passed. She’s reached the height of her fame, she’s in all senses of the word “a porn star,” but her demons and her issues with addiction have really followed her. So we’re watching her struggle- that struggle is no longer with her pimp, but it’s with herself. She’s a victim in so many ways, but she’s also a victim of her own ego, and her own short- sightedness. She is not someone who would ask for an intimacy coordinator! She has such a huge ego, and ultimately I think that’s really her demise.
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