Ita O’Brien

Practising safe sex on screen

Text by Kate Finnigan
Portraits by Esther Theaker
Styling by Bianca Raggi
Issue nº 24, Autumn & Winter 2021

There was sex on TV pre-Ita O’Brien, and then there was Sex Education. Normal People, I May Destroy You and It’s a Sin, too – audacious shows whose sets were safe and consensual for actors thanks to Ita’s game-changing intimacy guidelines. A former dancer with the smarts to choreograph her way out of potentially exploitative situations, the inspired intimacy coordinator not only invented her own job, she’s now setting the standard on productions worldwide. With her collection of genital-shielding props and the new Ridley Scott and Sally Rooney in the bag, Ita, 56, is rising to the occasion.

It is impossible to forget, when you meet her in person, that while Ita O’Brien is known as the UK’s leading intimacy coordinator, having worked on television shows including Normal People, It’s a Sin and I May Destroy You, she was first a dancer. It is there in the irrepressible energy that gets her up off the sofa and on to the carpet in her sitting room, arms open wide, to demonstrate the boundaries of the kinesphere (more commonly known as personal space) as defined by the dance artist and theorist Rudolf Laban. And it’s there again when she’s sitting down, stretching her legs out as she talks, pointing and flexing her socked feet, inscribing the kind of banana-shaped arch that belongs only to those who have danced all their lives.

Ita, 56, the child of Irish parents, started dancing at the age of three with Miss Handle in Hayes in south London, then went to Holy Trinity Convent in Bromley. At 11, she became a scholar at the Royal Academy of Dance at its headquarters in Battersea, where she remained until she was 15. She is pictured twice, once at seven and again at 15, in the book A Dancer’s World, by Margot Fonteyn, in which the internationally acclaimed ballerina offers advice to young ballet hopefuls and parents alike. After going on to the Bush Davies School of Theatre Arts, she progressed to musical theatre, razzle-dazzling her way through the West End and around Europe in the 1980s – she played Columbia in a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Teatro Vittoria in Rome. Publicity shots taken at that time show her with big hair and heavily blushed cheekbones. Last year when Ita worked on the Channel 4 drama It’s a Sin, Russell T. Davies’s series about the devastating impact of Aids on the gay community in London in that decade, it took her back to the early part of her career. “I was that musical theatre dancer with the back-combed hair,” she says. “My singing teacher at the time, he was one of the first people I knew who contracted HIV. Within 18 months he was gone.”

Ita was in her late 20s when she injured her back in a car accident. It left her unable to dance professionally, so she retrained as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, from 1996 to 1998. The Pink Paper once referred to her, in her “best review,” she tells me with a mischievous glance, as “a Tilda Swinton with personality.” She laughs. “Yes, I know. I was like, I’ll frame that one.” Then, in 2006, when her children were young (her son is now 24 and her daughter 21), she did an MA in movement studies at Central School of Speech and Drama and worked as a teacher in drama schools and on productions.

That job led eventually, in an entirely unplanned way, to the role for which she has suddenly became internationally renowned. “Intimacy coordinator” is a job few people realised existed before 2019, largely because it didn’t in this country until Ita invented it. It arose from the observation by Vanessa Ewan, her teacher at Central and the co-author of the 2014 book Actor Movement: Expression of the Physical Being, that a sex scene should be treated with the same care as a fight scene. While Ita was devising her own production, Does My Sex Offend You?, during a week of exploration around intimacy (you can see the piece, which was filmed at the Barbican in 2015, on YouTube), she realised that actors were being left emotionally and physically vulnerable when they were required to perform intimate content – be that hugging, kissing, nudity, intercourse or moments of violent sexual abuse.

“Before a clear process was put in place, what was happening was simply direction – ‘Just go for it,’” Ita tells me. “Nobody would have spoken to the actors about it. The scenes weren’t really being considered as part of the performance. Who is this character in this moment? How is this serving the beats of the scene? So actors were just trying their best to take care of themselves.”

“I’m saying: Adult language for body parts!”

Language and communication are the first principles of Ita’s work. “So that’s saying to producers from the get-go, ‘Think about it, earmark the intimate conversation, put money aside for it so we can rehearse. And then talk openly, professionally and clearly about it.’ Adult language for body parts like breasts and buttocks and activities such as penetration and orgasm. Not saying, ‘Let’s give her a good rogering and grab her tits!’”

Ita has brought a professional approach to sexual content and nudity on screen and stage through her organisation, Intimacy on Set, which has 25 coordinators around the world, with more training in the US, Canada, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in the UK. The process involves asking actors for their agreement and consent about what they will do in a performance – where on their bodies can they be touched, where can’t they – and choreographing scenes, breaking them down into pre-agreed movements that are authentic to human sexual experience, look anatomically correct and can be learned by actors in the same way as lines and dance moves.

When Paul Mescal, who played Connell Waldron in Normal People, told The Independent in September 2020 that “filming those scenes is probably the least sexy thing you’ll ever do in your life,” it was undoubtedly a testament to what Ita is doing right.

Here and in the opening image, Ita wears a cashmere coat by LORO PIANA, a merino polo-neck jumper by ANDERSON & SHEPPARD and a cotton T-shirt by SUNSPEL. Throughout, she wears her own pendant necklace. In the next image, she’s in a fine cotton chambray dress by MARGARET HOWELL, and a long-sleeved T-shirt by SUNSPEL. In the second image from the top, the cotton long-sleeved T-shirt is by SUNSPEL, the charcoal flannel trousers are by MARGARET HOWELL, and the black calfskin derbies are by CHURCH’S.

It is a warm, sunny June day at the pretty house in Kent where Ita and her family moved from London in February this year. We are in the shady sitting room, drinking tea on sofas positioned at right angles to each other. Ita, who has a distinctive heart-shaped face, high cheekbones and a straight gaze, is wearing clothes that are all comfort – stretchy, loose, wide-legged grey trousers, a velour printed scoop-neck top, a brown-grey long cardigan. They’re clothes you can sit cross-legged in or roll around the floor wearing, clothes that do not intrude.

When I ask Ita why processes like Intimacy on Set’s were not in place on productions until recently, she puts it down partly to old-fashioned embarrassment. “Sex is always the elephant in the room. Second, no one realised these scenes need choreography and a practitioner to do them. The sense is that everybody knows how to do sex, so you don’t need to teach actors how to do it. But I’m saying, actually, sex is a body dance, just like a tango. And when someone’s body is touched or there is nudity, there is a risk.”

At the Bafta Television Awards in June this year, Michaela Coel, the British writer and star of I May Destroy You, dedicated her award for best actress to Ita. In her speech, Coel thanked Ita for “making the space safe, for creating physical, emotional and professional boundaries, so that we can make work about exploitation, loss of respect, about abuse of power, without being exploited or abused in the process. I know what it’s like to shoot without an intimacy director – the messy, embarrassing feeling for the crew, the internal devastation for the actor.” She added, “Your direction was essential to my show, and I believe essential for every production company that wants to make work exploring themes of consent.”

We are talking a couple of weeks after Coel’s Bafta speech, which Ita describes as “gold dust” in terms of its advocacy for the role of intimacy coordinator. “‘The internal devastation of the actor’,” she says thoughtfully. “That has impact. In my acting days, long before I ever got into this, I was in a TV series called 40, with Eddie Izzard and Nimmy March. I played a small part, the recovering drug addict. Another actress went to the wardrobe department, and they told her what she was wearing for each scene. When she asked what she was wearing for a sex scene, they said, ‘Oh, nothing.’ The scene was to have sex on the floor, not even on a bed, and her experience of having to do that was so horrendous that she quit acting. That’s what it does to you.”

In the past, because no one talked about sex scenes, Ita says that the wardrobe department was often the only place an actor could turn to for any kind of protection and help. Today, providing the right kit is a large part of Ita’s job.

“Do you want to see it?” she asks. We go upstairs to her study, and she sits on the floor and pulls from a canvas tote a selection of small pale pink cushions of varying organic shapes and sizes. “These are genitalia barriers that just help people feel comfortable. So I’ve used this one,” she says, picking it up, “in moments of oral sex. This is for a period drama where they don’t have to take the skirt off – the actor wears flesh-coloured shorts and then puts this inside them, so they’ve got that extra barrier. This is a really good one for sex,” she says, picking up another shape. “Sat on top, but again, a really lovely barrier.”

Ita made these cushions herself out of cut-up blankets and lambswool. They didn’t exist before, although Alicia Rodis, Ita’s equivalent in America, also makes her own, from yoga mats. Now the wardrobe department on each production will help make barriers suitable for the show. “This one’s for masturbation,” Ita says, picking out another shape. “On season two of Sex Education you have the lovely scene with Otis and Ola. With the extra barrier in place, you agree where he can touch, so the hand is coming down, and then we are looking at how to curl the fist so that it looks like there is touch. Because if you curl the fist, the angle of the arm looks right.” By this point, Ita has popped the cushion down her own trousers. “Then I’m looking at, OK, what’s opening? Labia, you know, clitoral, inter-vaginal. So…” She demonstrates, moving her arm and hand to simulate the action. “It’s one and two and three and four and reaching down and five and six… I am doing counts of eight, literally choreographing. We’ll go through those types of counts a couple of times, and then once they’ve both got a sense of that rhythm I can step back.”

In a cupboard on her landing, Ita riffles through more of what she calls “the magic stuff”: mints, boxes of kinesiology tape and shorts in different flesh tones; packs of adhesive thongs; “chicken fillets” to be used in place of naked breasts when filming from behind; adhesive nipple daisies like large flower-shaped plasters. “Some actors are comfortable to have naked nipples, but I just worked on a job where the actor said he wanted the actress to wear them as it helps him to feel that it’s professional content, not personal.”

Ita’s work began to become more defined when, in 2015, she was invited by Meredith Dufton, the head of movement at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in south-east London, to teach her third-year acting students. In one class, Ita was helping them to become familiar with a language around intimacy. “I told them, ‘If you’re talking to a director who wants you to do this intimate scene and you can hear they haven’t got a good process in place, just say no.’” The students asked if the industry was going to back them up on that, so in January 2017, Ita went to Equity, the British actors’ union.

She discovered it had no specific guidelines about intimacy in place. But the New Zealand union had since 2015, and Ita asked permission to use their structure to write up her own “intimacy on set” guidelines, which she and her “mentor” Vanessa Ewan had been developing in drama schools since 2015. They range from excluding sex scenes from screen tests to identifying specific body parts that can be touched. Just a few months later, the revelations about the producer Harvey Weinstein’s years of sexual assault and abuse were made public, throwing a bombshell into the entertainment industry. The #MeToo movement was born. Leaders across stage and screen realised they needed to do better in all areas, and fast. And Ita was there, ready with her guidelines for the sensitive handling of intimate content.

“If Weinstein hadn’t happened, the thinking would have remained: You are an actor, you should be able to be naked, you should be able to do any sexual content because that is your job,” she says. “If ever an actor said no, they felt they would be out. Someone might not be comfortable being naked, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still your best actor for this role.” As an example, she points to the actor Weruche Opia, who played Coel’s best friend, Terry, in I May Destroy You. “She wasn’t prepared to perform the intimate content. It was integral to her character to have a threesome, but they were able to get in a body double, and she was happy, she was taken care of.”

“No one realised sex scenes need choreography.”

Although Ita had used the Intimacy on Set guidelines in 2017 in both tele-vision and theatre when she was employed as a movement director, she was first employed as an intimacy coordinator on Channel 4’s Sex Education, which began shooting in 2018; and she worked with the cast and crew from the start. She ran a day’s workshop for all the actors, producers and directors prior to filming, then proceeded to work on set for all the intimate scenes. “Our shoot was far better for us having met Ita,” Ben Taylor, the executive producer and director, told The New York Times in 2019. “Weirdly, probably the most revolutionary part was not the filming of it at all, just talking about it way in advance – settling nerves and making it a subject you wanted to explore and talk about.”

The impact of that frank and hilarious show starring a new generation of actors playing teenagers trying to come to terms with their bodies and sexual desires continues to be felt around the world. “Aimee Lou Wood, who performed the masturbation montage in the show, has told me she gets about 100 messages a day about that scene,” Ita says. The show returns for a third series on Netflix this month. In 2020, its creator, Laurie Nunn, told the London Evening Standard that working with an intimacy coordinator was key to the sex in the show not being titillating or gratuitous. “There’s a very interesting conversation to be had about whether we need as much gratuitous nudity on screen or whether we could pull back on that,” she said.
“Not just in our show but the industry in general.”

And the industry in general appears to be having that conversation. Which is why Ita is so busy. Since Sex Education, her list of credits has multiplied – I Hate Suzie, Gentleman Jack, The Great, to name a few. Not all of her on-set experiences have been joyful. There has been pushback from individuals – actors as well as directors – and box-ticking from whole productions that have only accepted her role under duress. “During one production, I did my damnedest to get in an early rehearsal for a scene and then had a message saying, ‘The actor doesn’t want to rehearse. He doesn’t want to make it a bigger thing than it needs to be.’ That language was interesting. It was still a ‘thing’. Whereas actually, when you rehearse it, it becomes not a thing.” On another production, she was told she could get her nudity waivers signed but would have no further input.

She was devastated at the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse that came out earlier this year against the actor, director and producer Noel Clarke, which he has denied. Ita has worked with him on several productions, including Viewpoint, pulled from broadcast by ITV after The Guardian revealed testimony from women who had worked for Clarke. “He’s always been very respectful to me,” Ita says. “There’s no doubt that he has done incredibly good work for people of the black community. There were several people that I had introduced him to. I felt that he was a great champion. But he’s undermined his own work. You know, what are you doing?” She says the story highlighted the need for more robust processes in auditions. “In an audition, somebody is vulnerable.”

In a way, Ita is a leveller of that potential imbalance of power. Lenny Abrahamson, one of the directors on Normal People, suggested as much in an interview in 2020. “If you’re a relatively well-established director and you’re working with young actors, there is always a worry that the actors will say yes to things because you’re asking them to, and they don’t want to disappoint you. That’s all gone in the context of Ita.”

But at times, Ita says, the work has seemed almost too hard, and she’s returned home from a set wondering if she can continue. The Covid pandemic proved an unexpected boost in that regard. “In that gap, productions went out into the world. Normal People, It’s a Sin, I May Destroy You, in particular, had such an impact. The intimate content in all of them was groundbreaking in some way, and the industry was able to see, Ah, that’s the role. That’s the kind of work that can come from it.”

The impact of Ita’s work is being felt in other fields. Sometimes drama productions bring in adult entertainment performers for supporting roles, and in 2019, she worked with some of them on party scenes where there was intimate content. “What’s great is this isn’t challenging to them; they do this for real every day and they bring an openness and ease to the scenes. I would say, ‘OK, this is how we are going to pretend to do it. You will be wearing genitalia coverings, we’ll be putting choreography into place,’” she says. “And they liked the process of agreement and consent and said this was needed in their industry too.” It is not a field Ita plans to move into, though. “The adult industry is the oldest profession in the world, it’s very important to our humanity, but it’s not what I engage in,” she says. “I’m interested in creating intimate content that is suitable to be in a drama. A feeling that it’s on the edge, that it’s going to do something new, that it’s important.”