How Emily Meade Started a Conversation and Brought Change to Set
by Ashley Morton
With an intimacy coordinator on The Deuce set, surprises are for the audience, not the actors.
The Deuce's Emily Meade, whose character Lori is “looking for trouble and fame” in New York City, and Alicia Rodis, the show’s intimacy coordinator, spoke with HBO.com about making sets more comfortable when actors are at their most vulnerable.
HBO: What was your role in bringing an intimacy coordinator onto the show?
Emily Meade: With all of the conversations that have started with the Times Up movement, I think most people were asking what our parts have been in perpetuating the problems in this industry. People in this industry, especially women, never thought it was an option to discuss their boundaries, or what makes them uncomfortable.
I’m somebody who has played really sexualized characters my whole career. I did my first sex scene at 16, in the first film I ever did. And there are many times I’ve felt uncomfortable, whether I’ve realized it in the moment or looking back retroactively. There was no specific incident or anything outside of what I’ve been used to for the past 13 years. The only thing that makes The Deuce different is the story itself is about sex, and sex scenes are an integral part of the story. And because it’s a series there are more of them.
I started thinking about how when you’re doing a stunt of any kind, even as simple as crossing the street with cars, or if there’s a child or animal on set, there are people who legally have to be there to protect and facilitate. People who have expertise. And yet when it comes to sexuality, which is one of the most vulnerable things for all humans, men and women, there’s really no system. There’s never been a person required to be there to protect and bring expertise.
I went directly to the creators, David and George, and HBO and told them I’d feel much more comfortable if there was some sort of advocate purely for the sexual scenes — especially on a show where not just my character, but everybody on the show has so much sex. I think that’s something everybody involved creatively knew and has been respectful of, but because there wasn’t a system for this sort of thing, no one knew how to properly do it. They were very helpful and instantly hired Alicia. And it’s transformed the entire thing.
HBO: How so?
Emily Meade: Specific to me, it’s hard when I’m being asked things from the director first, whatever it may be. I’m worried about letting people down. So I like to have Alicia talk to the director first and get briefed on what they want. She comes to me and tells me what the director is asking for, and I can tell her what, if anything, might make me uncomfortable. Then she goes back to the director and we can all discuss.
It’s so much more difficult with a TV show because you’re telling an ongoing story; you don’t know the material you’ll be working with later, and you don’t necessarily know what you’re doing until a few days before shooting.
I’m open to pretty much anything that serves the story and makes sense, but I just need to be clear on that, and process what is being asked of me, so to have her as the messenger is very helpful. To even have 5 or 10 minutes or a whole day to process it before responding is really helpful.
I think at first a lot of the actors were nervous she’d come in and wipe away all of the sexuality, but that’s not it at all. She’s not taking over the scene, or telling anybody to make it more PG than it is. Alicia has a background in stunt choreography, physicality, body language and how to perform and protect. She says, “If you know how many feet you’re going to jump, it’s easier to fully go into it.”
A lot of people like to be in the moment, and for me, the preparation allows that more because the boundaries and parameters are already in place. You know there’s somebody making sure lines don’t get crossed so you don’t have be worried about it while naked and performing.
HBO: What preliminary discussions did you have with the creators before taking on the role of Lori?
Emily Meade: I auditioned for Candy (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Abby (played by Margarita Levieva) but taking on Lori was purely from a conversation. I sat down with David [Simon] and he explained it was a difficult part. There would be a lot of tragedy and sexuality, and he was fully understanding of how much that was asking, and I should only do it if I was OK with it. I definitely had to think about it, but ultimately I trusted David’s vision, and part of my job as an actor is tell that story and depict it. Sometimes you have to immerse yourself in something difficult to tell the story.
HBO: How have those conversations continued or changed as you moved into Season 2?
Emily Meade: I was conditioned both in my life and career to just accept whatever the circumstances of playing out sexuality is. I remember being like, “Yeah well, I’ve done it before, I can handle it.” I think a lot of actors have to detach themselves in a lot of ways, and not only did the process of filming Season 1 bring a lot more awareness to my own sensitivity of sexuality, and how I didn’t want to disassociate anymore — I want to be a lot more connected to my body both in my personal life and my career — but I’ve realized it’s my job to express what I need to be comfortable. That’s what a lot of the conversations with the creators became, and they really listened. They took it very seriously and they made a change.
That is the next step in Times Up we really need to get to: not just talking about what the problem is, but fixing the system from within. I was very impressed and happy with the way HBO and David and George handled making a change that makes an actual difference. This season was like a completely different experience. Not just having Alicia on set, but having had those conversations and bringing more awareness to the personal experience of it all.
HBO: Do you imagine we’ll be seeing more shows hiring intimacy coordinators in the future?
Emily Meade: We’d better! It’s just mind boggling to me I’ve never been on set with an intimacy coordinator before; it felt so natural and so necessary. It’s crazy it took to 2018 for sexuality to be treated with the same sensitivity and vulnerability as violence, or animals or children. I hope it gets to a point where it’s not a choice, it’s necessity, just like stunt coordinators, or a chaperone for children and animals. I know HBO is already expanding to other shows. I’m going to make as much effort as I can to make sure it’s on any set I am on going forward.
HBO: Alicia, can you walk us through a typical day for you on set?
Alicia Rodis: First off, there is the intake of what we’re looking at in the script. There is a conversation first with the director and the showrunner as far as what it is they’re looking for, and then communication with the actors, with costumes, sometimes hair and makeup, and sometimes, with representation to make sure the nudity riders are specific to exactly what the actors agreed to. I’m there as someone whose sole purpose is to ensure there are no surprises to anyone on set. Even the crew.
When I get on set, usually my first thing is checking in with wardrobe and making sure we’re set on what pieces the actors are wearing or not, and what potential barriers we have for them if there’s any simulated sexuality happening. Then it’s checking in with actors, with the directors, looking at where we’re filming. When we get to the scene, I’m helping facilitate the safety meeting we have before the scene, assisting communication, making sure context is communicated, and that everything is consensual — which means it is stated. I help anchor the choreography for the scenes, and make sure there is always an exit so if the actors need a minute, they can have a minute. And sometimes, I’m checking the monitor to see what we’re showing and not showing. So there are a lot of moving parts.
HBO: Is this a job usually seen on sets? How did the position come about?
Alicia Rodis: The first time I am aware that “intimacy director” was used, it was by Tonia Sina who wrote about it in her MFA thesis in 2004. And she was the first one, as I understand it, who was doing intimacy direction as movement direction, and also advocating and participating in the collaborate experience. Outside of that, there have also been sex choreographers in the past who come on for certain scenes, but very few and far between.
I come from theatre and the independent film world, so that’s where most of my background with intimacy work was being used. But obviously since the #MeToo and Times Up movements, there has been more reach out. None of us are happy about why this is getting so much attention now, but we’re thrilled to be part of the solution.
HBO: Is the process the same when it comes to film and television?
Alicia Rodis: TV is a constantly growing, living and breathing organic beast — it’s not even about things changing; it’s new things are being created. So even though actors may know what’s happening generally with their character over a season, until we get that script, we don’t know what we’re actually looking at.
HBO: How do you approach that?
Alicia Rodis: It just means we have more upfront and continual conversation throughout filming to make sure everyone is aware of not only what they’re being asked to do, but what the story is. Getting a request for something outside of the context of the scene can be quite jarring, it can’t just be, “Will you be nude?” It has to be specific to what is happening to the character and with the story. Luckily, we work with creatives who are really wonderful at communicating and being open with their actors about what it is they’re looking for. There’s a big difference between directors who are working with their actors to cultivate authentic responses versus those who are just asking them to roll around and get off on each other.
There’s always a rehearsal of a scene before we shoot it, and this is where the intimacy work is different on film or TV versus theater. In theater, everything has to be very specifically choreographed to each detail because they’re doing it over and over again for weeks, months, or years even. But in TV and film, they’re doing this for a certain number of minutes or hours. So it opens itself to a little more improv, but in a controlled setting. That’s where a lot of this work comes in. Yes, we can anchor places where we know hands or hips are going to go, but we’re also making sure we know where the boundaries are.
HBO: How do you coordinate with the costume department?
Alicia Rodis: Kathleen Gerlach, our wardrobe supervisor, did a lot of work making sure we had different options for barriers, and I did a lot of research myself about what we could bring in. What is it during a sexual scene that stops it from being sex work? If we’re asking people to have genital against genital with just a cloth between them, is there a sexual health concern there? Because people will have vascular reactions; if our bodies are put in certain positions, we will react. We went through a number of options from silicone padding to thicker pieces of fabrics that were hardened, so even if your partner, regardless of gender, did have vascular reaction, you didn’t have to feel it. You know you have protection.
Outside of that, I have a kit with everything from breath fresheners to antiseptic wipes, things to allow people to be more comfortable. Creating art can be uncomfortable, and that’s OK: I’m there to make sure you’re safe. And if I can hand you some breath mints while we’re there for extra comfort, great.
HBO: Do you also imagine we’ll be seeing more shows hiring intimacy coordinators in the future?
Alicia Rodis: We are in a great cultural shift and everyone is desperately trying to catch up. It takes a lot of guts, courage and humility to look at something that has been done a certain way for years and say, “We can do better.”
To find out more about the intimacy coordinator role, head to Intimacy Directors International.