Five years ago, the role barely existed. Now, New Zealand’s intimacy coordinators can’t keep up with the demand. Alex Casey talks to Creamerie’s Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Tandi Wright and Roseanne Liang about how it all works.
This story contains discussion of sexual assault and harassment, please take care.
First of all, it’s nowhere near as raunchy as it sounds. “There’s an idea that we are out there teaching people how to do sex,” Jennifer Ward-Lealand chuckles down the phone. “It’s so the opposite. It actually couldn’t be less sexy.” It may not be all bodice ripping, but intimacy coordination has fast become a crucial role in our theatre and screen industry, overhauling the way that intimate scenes are handled on film and television sets and theatre stages.
Acting legend Jennifer Ward-Lealand is one of three registered intimacy coordinators in the country, along with fellow industry heavyweights Miriama McDowell and Tandi Wright. She’s also really busy, at the time of our interview juggling eight different intimacy coordinator jobs including local television series Ahikāroa, Sis and Head High, Netflix production One of Us is Lying, and stage productions Figaro, Six Degrees of Separation and Single Asian Female.
Recently prompting salacious headlines through the work of Ita O’Brien on smash hit sex fest Normal People, the role of intimacy coordinator varies wildly depending on the needs of the production. “We essentially bring a professional process to any work where the performers are in their own intimate space, or another person’s intimate space,” Ward-Lealand explains. This includes any scenes of a sexual nature, but also extends to bathing someone, changing a nappy, and giving birth.
Conversations around these scenes have been happening in private for decades, but it was only in 2015 that it was brought to the fore through Equity New Zealand, the performers’ union of which Ward-Lealand is president. “We had been hearing for a long time about difficult experiences, either because people had been abusive, or because there has been little or no communication,” says Ward-Lealand. “Actors were historically told to just go for it and sort something out on their own. If you can imagine any different power dynamic – male, female, senior, junior – it’s incredibly problematic.”
A “packed” meeting was held for people of all stages in the industry to share their experiences, which led to a set of intimacy guidelines for the industry being published – one of the first comprehensive documents of its kind in the world. Two years later, the explosion of the MeToo movement turned global attention to the way intimacy is handled, and New Zealand caught the attention of Ita O’Brien, who contacted Ward-Lealand directly. “She wanted to talk to me because she said she had searched all over the world for guidelines for actors and the only ones she could find were those on Equity New Zealand.”
Through their conversations, it was arranged for O’Brien to visit New Zealand and hold a series of intensive intimacy workshops in 2018. “As soon as I experienced it, as an actor I just thought ‘holy hell, this is a total game changer’,” Ward-Lealand recalls. “In 40 years I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed an intimate scene, or had it broken down in such a way that was creative, repeatable and robust. It gave everyone so much autonomy and freedom and I just realised it was something I had to get involved in.”
Tandi Wright, also an accredited intimacy coordinator and one of the stars of TVNZ’s Creamerie, remembers being spurred into action by Ita O’Brien’s visit. “After MeToo I was certainly examining my own behaviour in the past, and things I put up with that I probably shouldn’t have. I thought about it hard and I got angry. To be honest, I got really angry.” When she began learning about intimacy coordination, she found a way to channel her anger about the industry’s historic wrongs. “It looked like a positive way to give back to my industry and be a part of that change.”
It was a rigorous two-year training journey for both Ward-Lealand and Wright. Working remotely with Ita O’Brien as their mentor, they completed various modules including mental health, first aid, equality and diversity, working with children and conflict resolution, all the while building up hours on set. Throughout the process, it became clear to Ward-Lealand just how necessary the practice of intimacy coordination is to the industry. “There was not one training or job that I did where someone hasn’t disclosed something really disturbing to me,” she says.
“That’s why it is such an imperative for me to do this – I’m not prepared to add any more actors to the already poor mental health statistics that we have.”
One of the more recent challenging intimacy roles for Ward-Lealand (and onscreen for Wright) has been working on TVNZ’s dystopian black comedy Creamerie, which has not shied away from exploring the complexities of both sex and sexual assault onscreen. Set in a world where a virus has wiped out most of the male population and society is run by the women-led Wellness movement, Creamerie’s post-apocalyptic backdrop was a way to reframe and examine current conversations around sex and power, says creator and director Roseanne Liang.
Early on in the series, a fiery sex scene between Alex (Ally Xue) and Constance (Nikki Si’ulepa) was the first chance for the show to differentiate itself, says Liang. “We wanted to say that this is a dysfunctional relationship, one of those ones where you are at each other’s throats, but it’s also very gratifying.” With the scene showing intimacy between two women, Liang and Ward-Lealand were conscious of how lesbian scenes had been traditionally defined by the male gaze, and adjusted the performance and framing accordingly. “We wanted to avoid that completely and focus on the equal feelings of love and destructiveness,” says Liang.
As the series progresses and the full extent of the Creamerie world is realised, so too are some of the darker truths about how the society operates. In episode five, a dinner party that culminates in a shocking sexual assault involving a male character, Bobby (Jay Ryan), is one of the more confronting moments in the show. “Telling post-apocalyptic stories is just a new and different way into what we are experiencing now in society and civilisation,” says Liang. “Given sexual assault is about power and that all humans, regardless of gender, can seek power, I felt that it was a really interesting place to go, to turn the tables of power.”
For Ward-Lealand, the enormity of the dinner party scene in terms of both scale and subject matter provided some unique challenges. “Normally in these situations you’d have a closed set, but in this instance, with all these actors, extras and such a big crew, you just can’t.” As well as working with the main actors – Jay Ryan, Tandi Wright and Perlina Lau – to prioritise consent and respect, Ward-Lealand had a process in place for everyone on set to “shake off” the scene once they had finished shooting.
“They all had to watch that, and you just don’t know what’s gone on in their lives,” she says. “You have to look at the statistics that one in three New Zealanders have experienced sexual assault or abuse. It’s not just a possibility that someone in your cast and crew would have been a survivor of that – it’s a reality.”
The dinner party scene prompted robust conversation during both the commissioning and production stages, says Liang. Since it has been to air, many viewers have registered their shock on social media, some even challenging the need for it to exist at all. For Liang, sparking this kind of conversation was what she wanted from Creamerie. “The trauma of watching it is intentional, because I think it shows us something that we may have become jaded about in a new and different way. It might clarify what rape is to people. It’s just so clear to me, when you show it in this way, that it’s all about power.”
Other scenes, including the horrifying reveal that closes the series, posed different challenges. “When you’ve got characters that are meant to be in a very vulnerable and humiliating situation, you have to do everything you can to make the actors not feel like that,” says Ward-Lealand. “As actors, we know it’s not real but our bodies don’t necessarily know that it’s not real.” Part of her responsibility was to contact every actor before the scene to talk them through the action, and check in with them afterwards.
“People can’t just turn up any more. It always comes back to good communication and transparency – and lots of paperwork.”
In New Zealand, there’s been a sharp increase in the use of intimacy coordinators over the last three years. Ward-Lealand has now worked on more than 35 productions, and has led countless industry training sessions with everyone from improv troupes to acting schools to casting agents. “What excites me is that a whole generation of actors are coming into this industry having more autonomy,” she says. “We are getting much better at having these conversations. In the past, producers, directors and actors have been embarrassed to talk about this stuff.”
Wright says the presence of intimacy coordinators on set has completely transformed the experience of acting in New Zealand in only a few short years, aided here by the fact that the industry is smaller and more nimble than its overseas counterparts. “The enthusiasm for this work has been incredible. It just instantly removes all the unknowns. A lot of the anxiety around intimate scenes was caused by there being not enough information and conversation. This is just a much better, clearer and safer way of handling those scenes.”
The growing need for regulation in the intimacy space also shows how society is evolving, says Ward-Lealand. Several times a week she is contacted by industry folk, those from giant overseas streaming series to local oily rag theatre productions, wanting to know more about intimacy coordination. She hopes people will continue to talk about consent and setting boundaries, and that the practice extends beyond the screen and stage.
“People are less willing to put up with shit, which is good. Because there will always be people with less power who feel like they have to do to something they don’t want to do, and that’s what I want to stop.”
The full season of Creamerie is available to watch here on TVNZ OnDemand