Ita O’Brien, who worked on the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit novel, explains the importance of intimacy both on and off camera
Normal People has been garnering a lot of talk for being the horniest show on TV – it’s what’s made it kind of perfect, kind of torturous fodder for widespread lockdown. But more than that, its sex scenes feel kind of revolutionary, in all their awkward moments, explorations of consent, and focus on both female and male pleasure and desire. When Marianne’s bra gets stuck and Connell trips on his trousers in one sexual flurry. When kinks and fetishes, rough sex, and consent are confronted head-on. When condoms are totally normal.
The BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s stellar novel follows its protagonists Connell and Marianne from small-town secondary school in County Sligo to Trinity College, Dublin, and is stacked with raw portrayals of sexual encounters – some take up significant portions of entire episodes (and we watch, breathless too). With the comedic trysts of Sex Education or the more sinister shades of Euphoria, the sex in Normal People settles into scenes that are so raw and intimate, it’s hard not to feel like you’re intruding.
Overseeing these scenes is Ita O’Brien, a UK-based intimacy coordinator who’s also worked on the sets of Watchmen, Sex Education, among others. She describes her role as similar to that of a stunt coordinator, someone who brings a structure onto set so that everything that’s being asked from an actor – “simulated sex, nudity, and touch” – is fully consented to, while also helping to choreograph scenes that serve the characters and their stories. “As an intimacy coordinator, what we’re bringing to the industry is a shift to help everybody know that just as with a dance or a fight, we’re doing intimate content to understand that we’re bringing a skill and a structure that allows everyone to work professionally,” O’Brien tells Dazed over Zoom.
In a recent interview with Dazed, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, who play Marianne and Connell, spoke of their experiences on set positively. “Paul and I hadn’t done many of those scenes before starting, but Ita was so wonderful. She took the pressure off completely. The scenes ended up being quite positive,” said Edgar-Jones. Mescal agreed: “The fact that they put policies and structures in place allowed me to go about doing the things that are really important to the book as honestly as possible. Also, we were given guidelines in terms of the physical blocking, but it never felt like there was a disconnect from the emotional part of the scene – it never felt clinical or creatively dead.”
Below, we speak to O’Brien on the process of choreographing the sex scenes in Normal People, how they’re used to build a character’s storyline, and the importance of building a safe environment on and off camera.
How would you describe your role?
Ita O’Brien: As an intimacy coordinator, we’re bringing to the industry a shift to help everybody know that just as with a dance or a fight, we’re doing intimate content, we’re bringing a skill and a structure that allows everyone to work professionally, which wasn’t there before. In that, we’re inviting clear communication from the get-go, right through the whole process, so everything’s understood, everything’s out in the open, and that the invitation is to speak openly, in a professional way, with adult language about intimate content.
How much of the characters do you consider when crafting an intimate scene?
Ita O’Brien: Intimacy work is about serving character, serving the writing, serving the director’s vision. And then, with that clear focus on character, you’re just making sure to honour what the scene is and putting it in place.
You’ll speak to the director about what he or she wants from the scene and make sure the director has spoken to the actors. Once that’s happened, I’ll check-in with the actors as to any concerns, and once we’re on set, I’m present while they have the director rehearsal in that scene.
It’s about the intention, where the characters are at this point in time. It’s about observing what the actors are offering, observing how they’re being in their body, and from that will emerge a basic shape, physically, in the scene. Then, once they’ve already got a basic shape, I’ll step in and start agreeing the touch and choreography.
What I really liked about the first sex scene, actually, with Mariana and Connell, is this clear portrayal of consent, especially because the characters are so young.
Ita O’Brien: Isn’t it lovely? That’s Sally’s writing, that’s her focus. It’s so inherent and embodied within Connell’s character. And I agree, it’s really positive. I’ve had other people say to me that they would even recommend that people show that scene to their teenage kids in preparation for their sexual settings, their sexual lives as a really positive depiction of losing virginity.
They’re really being present and honest with it, and you can still acknowledge, perhaps, all the concerns within the possibility of this first time of making love, while also being connected, and sensual, and sexy with each other.
So, when you were choreographing that scene, for instance, what were you keen to portray?
Ita O’Brien: Well, again, the focus is always on serving the scene, on being really clear with all of that progression, all the tiny bits of it. For instance, the scene doesn’t start with them taking clothes off, it starts with that dialogue, and that’s so important that we gradually see them from drinking tea sitting apart, to having that conversation, and actually allowing themselves to be vulnerable and intimate with each other, through what they’re revealing in the dialogue first.
She’s revealing how she feels about herself and about what she thinks others think of her. And he’s revealing that he actually doesn’t know what he feels in each moment. Both of those are quite, you know, mature and amazing revelations that they’re saying to each other, to the point that it’s already intimacy. And then it sorts of builds up through that whole delicate asking, undressing, and being present and naked with each other to the final act of intercourse.
“Before, there’s been a lot of abusive sexual content on our screens, and while it’s really important that art depicts life and, of course, in life there is a fair amount of abusive sexual content, we also want to really honour and show the best of our humanity” – Ita O’Brien
That scene in episode two actually takes about seven minutes, meaning that a third of the entire episode is taken up by that one scene. Lenny filmed it as much as possible in one go with different camera angles, and Paul and Daisy have incredible beautiful skills. All of that brings that feeling of really being present with them and really going on that journey of gradually coming together and revealing themselves to each other.
How does this change in the later episodes with Marianne’s later relationships?
Ita O’Brien: It was really important that the scenes with Marianne and Lucas, and with Jamie, while they’re fetish, they’re also really about two consenting adults exploring fetish qualities of sexual expression.
And when you’re communicating these scenes to the actors, how do you make sure they’re comfortable?
Ita O’Brien: In pre-production, when they were in the rehearsal period, we had a day where I shared the guidelines, and we worked on a few scenes. We started to practise with the structure of it and the idea of talking really clearly, mentioning agreement and consent, and choreographing the scene just like a physical body dance.
Then for each scene, I would check in with Lenny the night before, and with both actors, to see for any concerns. And go to the wardrobe to make sure that all genitalia patches were ready.
We were constantly in conversation, so by the time we got onto set, I knew what their concerns were, I knew what they were happy with. And then, each day, when we get up, to agree to a touch that’s been consented previously. Like, sometimes it would happen that they agreed to touch in the morning but by the middle of the afternoon when they had been filming this scene all day, there was the stubble rash from kissing. So they might be like, ‘My cheeks are becoming really red,’ and I might say, ‘Alright, then you don’t need to kiss, we have already got that moment’.
The focus is on making sure that they are personally safe and that they’re personally comfortable. So they can really stay free to act and are able to bring all of their skills, as an actor, to the scenes.
That’s so good to hear. Did you receive any feedback from the actors? Was it generally positive?
Ita O’Brien: Yeah, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the press but they’ve been really happy to be able to work professionally. And what I love about it is that the production had set in place a day for the actors to see a rough cut of the edit, and particularly the very intimate content, so they could see everything that was going to be put into the programs before it went out to the public.
That must be very reassuring. Can you explain why that’s important?
Ita O’Brien: While you might consider they’re very exposed – I mean, you’d have to ask Paul and Daisy this – my hope (and my intention) is that they’re really happy for that content to be there, especially knowing that all of that content is serving character, and that it was done in a really supportive way. They know it’s all about serving the story and, therefore, they could feel really proud and stand behind their work and be really happy for that content to be out in the world.
“The irony is that within a clear boundary, you actually create more freedom” – Ita O’Brien
I’m interested to know how you think sex scenes have progressed in the last five-or-so years? What’s changed?
Ita O’Brien: Before, I think there’s been a lot of abusive sexual content on our screens, and while, of course, it’s really important that art depicts life and, of course, in life there is a fair amount of abusive sexual content, we also want to really honour and show the best of our humanity.
In particular, with a clear choreography put into the content, sex scenes have become more beautiful. Also, as you say, there’s a huge difference in terms of showing characters who ask for consent, as in the scene we mentioned before.
The pinnacle of our loving is into our loving relationships and into our love making, you know, with the people who we love in our lives, and that should be depicted in our storytelling, in our characters, and on and on. I love it and I’m happy to be able to help facilitate that.
Would you say that before these guidelines were in place it was mostly improvised, and now is there any improvisation, or is it mostly just choreographed?
Ita O’Brien: Before, there wasn’t a structure. So then, invariably, actors in some way, would have to go at it themselves, either they would have to work it out between themselves, or just go for it in front of the camera. And then in both those incidences, the actor would be vulnerable.
Improvisation is still a really important tool, but it’s just putting in place clear boundaries. So actors can sort of improvise a way through, but overall, what I’m advocating is the structure that I’ve described. And within that, the actors can be spontaneous, they can still find those nuanced differences at each take. At the same time, the director is still also free to really direct them, giving all those nuanced aspects that they might want, stuff like, “Be more vulnerable, be more passionate,” whatever they might want to say. So the irony is that within a clear boundary, you actually create more freedom.
Normal People is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now