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The fall of Showtime’s SMILF, and the role of intimacy coordinators during sex scenes

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JW Marriott Hotel king bed. Photo credit: Prayitno/CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

The Showtime series SMILF, about a hard-luck single mom in Boston, received critical acclaim and was nominated for two Golden Globes last year. The show, now in its second season, was helmed by Frankie Shaw, its star, creator and showrunner.

However, ABC Signature Studios is now investigating allegations against Shaw that include people not being credited for their work, writers being separated by race, and the mishandling of sex scenes.

Late last week, the studio announced that it’s cancelling the show and suspending Shaw’s deal without pay while it investigates.

Hollywood reporter and host of KCRW’s The Business, Kim Masters, broke the story in December and has been following it since then. She found that sex scenes involving actress Samara Weaving were handled with great insensitivity.  

She says Weaving was allegedly bullied in season one, when she had reluctance about doing a certain act in a love scene. And in season two, monitors were turned on even though actors expected a closed set. “This is this was considered a breach, and the actress actually left the show.” she says.

Would the outcome have been different if SMILF had hired someone to ensure everybody felt comfortable and safe during sex scenes?

Alicia Rodis co-founded Intimacy Directors International in 2015, and is now the new intimacy coordinator for HBO. She describes her role to Press Play: “An intimacy coordinator is a movement coach or movement director, an advocate for actors, and a liaison between actors and production. So I like to think that we are the connective tissue between what we see on the page, and what happens when we are shooting.”

Alicia Rodis.jpg
Alicia Rodis. Photo credit: Theik Smith

Rodis has consulted with various directors -- plus experts in law, consent, and trauma. She says she has gotten more work since the #MeToo movement began.

She’s always in the room when sex scenes are shot, and says she collaborates with all departments to ensure the consent and safety of the actors.

“So when we get into those scenes where you have the simulated sex or nudity, I’m making sure the protocols are going through. But I'm also assisting with choreography, or anchoring, or making sure we at least know that everything that's being done is consensual, and no boundaries are being crossed,” she says.

How exactly does a sex scene work?

Rodis explains that generally, actors follow their instincts to achieve an authentic performance, but ultimately, everything is fake.

“We are not asking actors to do sex work. We're not asking them to have an actual sexual experience… With our laws, with our business laws, with our union protocols, that is not what we're asking actors to do,” Rodis says.

She explains that nudity riders/waivers, addendums to contracts, are common in the industry. “What we do is make sure they say exactly what it is they are agreeing to, as far as if they're agreeing to simulate a sexual act. Or what type of nudity it is that they are okay showing or not okay showing. It’s not a blanket statement.”

What if an actor withdraws consent?

“If someone says, ‘I am not going to do this,’ and it is something with nudity, a sexual act, a violent act, what are you going to do?... Are you going to physically force someone to do it? No,” says Rodis.

She says if specific protocols are not set, then people end up feeling forced into real sexual acts.

Intimacy coordination is in place so that everyone can establish their limits beforehand. “When actors know the information ahead of time, they know that they are going to be safe. They know that they're being advocated for. They know exactly what the shot is, and what they're being asked to do. They feel then more empowered to do their best work,” she says.

Protective garments during sex scenes

Rodis says the costumes department has garments people can wear if they want to be modest and prevent people from seeing certain body parts.

“If we're telling a story of simulated sex, or telling a story of sex, and we have genitals up against each other, we want something else there. So some sort of padding, some sort of barrier… so that there is sexual health that is cared for because god forbid, someone has a sexual health issue going on,” she says.

“But also making sure that we have a little bit less feeling happening there, so that if someone has a vascular reaction, the partner doesn't have to feel that. We normalize it. We know that just because you put your body in a certain position, your body is going to want to replicate that pre-moments of that actually happening. But it's not actually happening. We're actors working together in a professional circumstance.”

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Yael Even Or

Credits

Guests:
Kim Masters - editor-at-large of The Hollywood Reporter, and host of KCRW's “The Business.” - @kimmasters, Alicia Rodis - intimacy coordinator at HBO, Associate Director & Co-Founder of Intimacy Directors International

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Christian Bordal, Yael Even Or, Alexandra Sif Tryggvadottir, Caitlin Plummer, Rosalie Atkinson