Wide Angle

How an Intimacy Coordinator Helps Actors Navigate Sex Scenes

Marcus Watson shares his process for making sure actors’ boundaries are respected in sensitive moments.

A young man with dark facial hair.
Marcus Watson Courtesy of Marcus Watson.

On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with Marcus Watson, an intimacy coordinator and choreographer for TV, movies, and theater. They discussed how he approaches conversations about kissing and simulated sex with actors and directors, the kinds of trainings and qualifications the role requires, and how the #MeToo movement changed the profession. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Butler: What are some examples of boundaries that come up in your work, and how do you let actors know that it’s OK to tell you what those are?

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Marcus Watson: It’s a funny thing; as an actor, you are taught to be the clay, in a way that you’re moldable and you bend at the whim of the person who is molding you. In many ways, actors, dancers, performers have silenced that little voice inside that tells you something is a boundary, because you’ve been told it’s good to be brave and step out of a comfort zone. That’s where sometimes trauma can happen, because you are not listening to your body. So, many times I come in and I say, “Great, so let’s talk about boundaries, do you have boundaries?” And actors will be like, “No, no, no, I’m totally fine, I’m totally good, I’m an open book, no boundaries whatsoever.”

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Then when we start getting into the moments of the scene, and I let that sit, I don’t contradict it because who am I to say that you have no boundaries or what it is? That’s not my position—my position is to listen. We continue to go into the details of the scene and what is appropriate for this scene. Let’s say this scene is about kissing and undressing and we’re not doing any simulated acts, but it is undressing, maybe a little bit of groping and kissing. At that point I’m like, “Let’s set some boundaries for the scene, because this scene doesn’t need at this point any touching of groin, right?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, no, no, no, no, I don’t want anyone to touch my groin for this scene.” Great, so that’s a boundary that you had that you weren’t willing to tell me.

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Maybe that is not for every single scene you do, but for the context of this scene, that is a boundary. Same thing with, are we kissing with tongue? Are we biting lips? Where are your boundaries with the type of kiss that we’re doing? “I’m totally fine with a kiss.” OK, awesome. What happens if they want to bite your lip, or what are our bounds that we’re setting so that we know exactly what’s OK to do and where we’re stepping back? I’m breaking down and getting really specific given the context of the scene that we are shooting and that helps to open up the conversation about specific boundaries.

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You don’t need your whole body open if we’re just doing a kissing scene; you don’t need your whole body open if we’re doing a simulated sex scene. There’s no reason for them to touch your feet, there’s no reason for them to do some of the things that might be done in one scene, there’s no reason for it in this scene, so it helps to set those boundaries. There are definitely actors who come in and they’re like, “I don’t like breathing in my ear, do not touch my belly button, and no tickly motions on my legs, if you’re going to grab me it needs to be firm.” I have some people who come in very clear and aware of what their boundaries are, and other people who are like, “Ah, no, we’ll see.”

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They can discover boundaries when they’re running the scene and then actually be like, “Oh, I thought I was OK with this thing, but I’m not.”

Exactly, because it’s not consent if you can’t retract it. Consent is fully retractable, and we can always change what’s happening, in the sense that you’re consenting to this, but then the role is recast and this is someone who you don’t know. Your boundaries can change given the person, given who’s in the room, given I’m on a sofa not a bed, that changes how I feel about how we’re shooting this scene. Consent is very specific to the context and the moment, and if anything changes, that can change consent level. As well as saying, “Nothing in the scene changed, and it turns out that today I’m in a different place than what I was yesterday when we talked about this, and I’m updating my boundaries.” Or, “I slept on it, and, Marcus, you were right, I did have more boundaries and here they are,” and talking about it that way.

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In every creative profession you have to redraft an idea. Revision is a major part of the creative process. Sometimes you have to revise ideas, I would imagine, in fairly significant ways due to people’s boundaries. Can you talk a bit about your revision process?

If something needs to be revised, I feel it’s very important that there’s no questioning of that. A boundary is put in place because the person says it’s a boundary, and there’s no need to justify that or explain it. If something becomes a boundary, that is not on you to fix, it is on us to come up with a way, if we can, to continue to move forward and get the shot, unless it is something that is going to stop and change the scene. In that case, we can stop and change the scene, and we can discuss that with the writers and the director. I will say, rarely that happens because so much energy is put into communicating things beforehand and setting up a safe space.

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Usually what happens, a boundary changes, or this is really uncomfortable, or my modesty garment is not allowing me to do this move, we need to change something. I come in, I say, “What is the exact thing that’s happening?” So we can still get this story, we can still sell what’s happening in this way. Then it’s discussing with the actors what it is that they are comfortable with, clarifying the new boundaries, and then going to the director and saying, “This is what we have, these are some options.” Many times I’ll come, and I’ll already have ideas. The second something like that happens, I’m thinking, OK, great, we can do it this way, we can change it this way, we can change angles slightly and do this. I’m coming up with Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D.

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I’ll go to the director and be like, these are the new boundaries, and sometimes the director has an idea right away and I’m like, “Oh yeah, that fits and it’s actually my Plan D.” Sometimes the director’s like, “Well then, what are we going to do?” And I’m like, “Here are some options, would you like to hear them. Here are my fixes, let’s do it this way.” It is about thinking on the fly sometimes, and coming up with things and also not questioning the change or the boundary that the actor is giving.

To listen to the full interview with Marcus Watson, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.

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