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Episode Transcript

Hey, it’s Zack. Before we start the show, I just want to let you know that we’re covering some adult topics in this episode. If you listen to the show with kids, you might want to skip this one. Okay, on with the show.

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A few years ago, while working on the HBO TV show The Deuce, Alicia Rodis was assigned the sex scene of a lifetime.

RODIS: There is a scene where one of the characters went into this warehouse and it was filled with folks having sex.  And this was a massive day on set where I think we had around 38 background performers who were in different, various states of undress. And this director is very specific, like: “I think I want a threesome, I think I want a couple of group sex scenes. I want to pass by a couple of people maybe getting oral sex. I spent days leading up to the shooting of the scene calling each one of these performers, going through what exactly was expected of them, how we were going to shoot it, making sure there were barriers between the folks that were simulating sex. And it ended up being just a very large, strategic dance that we all set in motion that day.

Choreographing that kind of dance is Rodis’s job. She’s what the film and television industry calls an intimacy coordinator: She oversees sex scenes — or, really, scenes involving any kind of intimacy — from a simple kiss to a 38-person orgy.  And these days, producers for movies and TV shows are increasingly hiring people like her to make sure everyone on set feels comfortable and safe.

It’s a job that involves prosthetics, pubic hair wigs, body doubles, emotional counseling, and some very explicit contracts.

SWANLUND: There’s no, or very little, romance involved in most of these scenes.

For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Sex Scenes.

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For most of the history of cinema, intimate encounters weren’t treated with much sensitivity. For the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, for instance, Michael Douglas and Glenn Close were given alcohol to help them “loosen up” before their big moments. When filming 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, Maria Schneider, who played the female lead, wasn’t even told she was going to shoot a rape scene. Director Bernardo Bertolucci later said he wanted it to be a surprise, so that Schneider’s terrified reaction would feel more genuine.

Alicia Rodis experienced this laissez-faire approach for herself. She got her start as an actor in the ‘90s. And from the beginning, she was involved with intimate scenes on camera.

RODIS: The joke in my household, from the time I was 13, was that if a show had a slutty best friend, or had a prostitute, I was usually going to be at least called back for it. I had a lower voice, I developed early, and just had a more of a character actor sort of look. I was often put in these situations where I had to exude a certain amount of sexuality, or I had to bring some sort of intimacy.

Most of the time, she says, these scenes weren’t planned out.

RODIS: We would just start going and the expectation would be just to do whatever you felt was right. There was a real sort of feeling of: “just go for it” and wanting a sense of authenticity. I was working background for Boardwalk Empire and at one point I had to be topless. We, you know, are about to like go up, and cameras up, and I’m like, “So, is anyone going to tell me  to take my top off?” The communication wasn’t there, and people didn’t know how to just put plainly and simply what it was they needed.

Rodis eventually switched over to stunt work. Each stunt was mapped out in detail by choreographers and other dedicated crewmembers. For the first time, as an actor, she felt supported.

RODIS: They would be checking in with me at the beginning of the day, making sure I know what’s going on: “Hey, I know you were brought in for a 10 foot high fall, it’s actually looking like 12 feet. How do you feel about that? What do you think about, you know, this is the padding and this, etc.. ” And the good stunt coordinators really made me feel like I was held, I was part of the process.

Rodis began to ask why there wasn’t a similar system in place for sex scenes. She eventually partnered with two other actors — Tonia Sina and Siobhan Richardson — and wrote up some guidelines for coordinating that kind of sequence. Not long after that, the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, the #MeToo movement emerged, and Hollywood had a moment of reckoning. Producers realized they needed more oversight on set — particularly for scenes involving nudity and sex.

RODIS: And the phone started ringing.

In 2017, Rodis received a call from a producer at HBO. They were looking for an intimacy coordinator to work on The Deuce. It was a show about sex workers in the 1970s.

RODIS: He sort of sounded like he was calling a prostitute. We had a website at the time describing what we did, and he was like: “Hi, I’m looking at a website and I see you offer a service?”

Rodis ended up getting hired for the job. And after successfully steering The Deuce through that warehouse orgy, and dozens of other sex scenes, she was brought in to oversee intimate scenes across all of HBO’s shows.

Today, the process of planning a sex scene begins before the show has even started casting. Any TV show or film that uses union actors has to follow the actors’ union contract:  a 786-page document that lays out everything from travel insurance to the humane treatment of animals on set. It also has a section devoted to nudity. And when actors need help understanding it, they usually turn to someone like Matthew Swanlund.

SWANLUND: I am an art and entertainment attorney at Aesthetic Legal in Los Angeles, California.

Swanlund has been practicing law for more than 20 years. And during that time, he has negotiated a lot of contracts for actors. He says that the union agreement provides several basic intimacy protections. First off, it strictly prohibits real sex on camera, or any kind of direct sexual contact.

SWANLUND: Genital-to-genital contact is not permitted. There has to be a physical barrier in place which prohibits or stops any kind of bodily fluids from being transmitted. You don’t usually have two fully nude bodies touching each other in any production.

The agreement also gives actors the right to negotiate any nudity or simulated sex before they sign on for a role. That so-called nudity rider can get pretty detailed.

SWANLUND: The rider can be very, very specific in terms of what does this scene look like? What is the actor expected to do in this scene? Most of them are governed by confidentiality clauses that are never going to see the light of day. But I can tell you that there are nudity riders that say, you know, ”The performer’s left breast will be displayed from the side for no more than three seconds on screen.” Or, “The performer will remove his boxer shorts, exposing full frontal nudity for three seconds.” It’s somewhat uncomfortable sometimes to draft those and to negotiate those.

The craziest nudity rider Swanlund ever saw was from the TV show Westworld. It called for situations that would never fly today.

SWANLUND: I have some of the text, if you want me to read an interesting section of this: “The performer may be required to: simulate oral sex with hand-to-genital touching; contort to form a table like shape while being fully nude; pose on all fours while others who are fully nude ride on your back; ride on someone’s back while you are both fully nude; or have your genitals painted.”

These graphic, upfront descriptions give actors and their lawyers a chance to go over anything they might not like.

SWANLUND: And if there’s full frontal or if there’s, you know, some element of the nudity that they’re not comfortable with, we negotiate that to say, you know, there’s nipple covers or there’s a modesty garment of some sort for the bottom half or, you know, the butt crack won’t be visible.

Swanlund says that actors are typically paid a premium for participating in intimate scenes — particularly scenes that require them to be naked. The director of the 2001 film Swordfish once claimed that leading actor Halle Berry was paid a $500,000 bonus to go topless — though Berry denied it.

SWANLUND: If a producer wants a certain actor to be nude, they want that actor to be nude for a reason. There’s something that is in demand there. And so that supply-demand dynamic creates an additional compensation element for the actor to pursue.

Sometimes, actors want to take on a role but don’t want to appear nude on camera. In those cases, the nudity rider might allow for a body double — kind of like a stunt performer, except instead of jumping out of a moving car, they’re having simulated sex. In the 2005 comedy The Wedding Crashers, the actor Isla Fisher had separate doubles for three different body parts.

Once the actors have signed on and their stipulations around sex and nudity have been written up in legalese, intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis becomes a liaison between the actors and the filmmakers. She’ll review the nudity riders and talk over the details of each scene with the director.

RODIS: And it’s just like: “Okay, so the script says they fall into bed and make love. Tell me everything — what does that look like to you? What are we trying to exude? What’s the tone of this? You know, what’s the extent of nudity that you’re looking for?” And we all work artistically, and also as technicians, to figure out what that scene is going to be, and then set it up.

So, after all this preparation, what does it take to make a sex scene work? That’s coming up.

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For Alicia Rodis, planning a sex scene involves coordination with many different production crews. That starts with the costume department.

RODIS: If they are removing clothes, that’s something we want to make sure costumes is looped in on — the costume PA’s and the costumers on set — making sure that they’re set up with exactly what’s coming off, where it’s coming off, how it’s coming off.

Rodis often works with the prop department, too.

RODIS: Let’s say we need a scene where a hand is going onto a penis, then, “Okay, we’re going to need to get a prosthetic of a penis to see the hand on that penis.” 

In the past few years, you might have noticed a lot more full-frontal male nudity in movies and on TV. In a lot of cases, what you’re seeing is a silicone prosthetic. Sometimes, actors don’t want to show their actual penis. Other times, it doesn’t fit the script.

RODIS: I was on a show once where the actor really wanted to get naked. We filmed it, and immediately I was like: “So this probably isn’t going to work for you all.” And they were like: “What do you mean?” I was like, “This character is Jewish — and this person is not circumcised.” That’s my job to think about. For that prosthetic, I’m going to ask a lot of questions about what kind of prosthetic you’re looking for. What’s the size? What’s the skin tone? I like to give different options for folks because if it’s too big, it can be awkward or even be somewhat shaming in a way.

In Hollywood, a high-quality prosthetic penis runs between $6,500 and $9,000. And that’s not the only device you might find in an actor’s pants.

RODIS: There are things called camel-toe protectors, that was actually designed for someone with a vulva to put in their yoga pants to avoid having camel toe, that we rigged in certain ways so that they had more coverage over their genitals when they were performing simulated sex with someone.

When actors are shooting a sex scene, Rodis always brings supplies to the set.

RODIS: My kit usually includes a bare minimum of: breath mints, breath strips, antiseptic wipes. If it’s just a kissing scene, then it’s going to be mouthwash, things like that. And if it’s something more involved, usually I’ll bring two sided tape and things like that, so that if we need to make sure a garment stays one way, then it stays that way.

When she’s on set, Rodis continuously checks in with every actor to make sure everything is OK. She ensures that each movement is safe and clearly communicated. And she thinks about the context of an intimate scene and the purpose it serves in the production.

RODIS: Why is this moment of intimacy here? What does it mean for the characters? What does it mean for the story itself? What are the power dynamics between the performers involved? Because all of that is going to change what is going on and how it is that you’re approaching it.

Most people are grateful for her interventions — but a few are less receptive. Some directors are wary of relinquishing creative control. And some veteran actors feel like they don’t need coaching or supervision. Jennifer Aniston chose not to use an intimacy coordinator for a sex scene with Jon Hamm for the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show. “I’m from the olden days,” she told Variety. “We’re seasoned — we can figure this one out.”

RODIS: You know, there’s been things in the news of celebrities saying, “Oh, it takes the spontaneity out of situations, etc..” It’s like: you could say the same thing about a moment of violence. It still needs to be safe and repeatable. There are ways to find a moment of intimacy in a moment of improv. We just make sure that it’s within a container: We know what we’re not doing, so that we know what is open and on the table that we can do.

Rodis says there’s an economic case for having intimacy coordinators on set: she can help move the production along efficiently, and reduce liability for the studio.

RODIS: It’s a higher risk situation than just a day at the office filming. A misjudgment of a scene and an issue that could arise could then sour the relationship between the actors and the director or a producer, or between the actors themselves for the rest of your filming.

For the most part, it seems like the industry agrees. There are now hundreds of intimacy coordinators working on film and TV sets around the world. And there are certification programs that are helping to standardize the profession.

RODIS: The job prospects are higher than ever before because of the awareness and because this is something that people now have a line item for in their budgets. It’s expected from a lot of actors and directors now.

The agreement that emerged from the actors’ strike at the end of 2023 even directly addressed intimacy coordinators.

RODIS: For the first time, they got intimacy coordinators included in the contract. So we are not mandated yet, but the producers have to make a “best effort” to hire an intimacy coordinator, and an actor cannot not be retaliated against if they ask for an intimacy coordinator on set.

So the market for intimacy coordinators looks bright — but it’s possible they may have fewer scenes to oversee. A recent survey out of U.C.L.A. found that nearly half of respondents between the ages of 13 and 24 felt that there was too much gratuitous sex in movies and TV shows.

Matthew Swanlund, the entertainment attorney, thinks his younger actor clients might have less negotiating to do in their future nudity riders.

SWANLUND: It’s entirely possible that in the next 10, 20, 30 years, we have less and less of these types of scenes.

Regardless of what the future holds, Alicia Rodis will be there to make sure everything goes smoothly.

RODIS: People want to know everyone is safe. They want to know that there is some oversight and that folks are being taken care of.

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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley and mixed by Jeremy Johnston. We had additional help from Daniel Moritz-Rabson.

SWANLUND: It has happened after the scene is completely shot, the performer says, “I made a mistake. I never should have done that. My grandmother’s going to be horrified.”

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