Did you know there’s a special person hired to choreograph fucking on film sets? Yeah, us either. We sat down with Alicia Rodis, a woman choreographing sex, make-outs, rape scenes, and simultaneous orgasms for the big screen. By Michel Ghanem.
What does it mean to choreograph on-screen intimacy? How do straight actors know where to place their limbs during a queer sex scene? What’s up with Hollywood’s obsession with simultaneous orgasms? These are questions I set out to answer by seeking out an intimacy choreographer, a legitimate (and needed) position within the show and entertainment business.
In June 2016, the Chicago Reader published an exposé of Profiles Theatre, revealing the abuse behind the curtains of a Killer Joe production. The investigation cites that combat and sex scenes in the production were mishandled to the point that cast members were brutally choked on stage, and subject to sexual harassment at the hands of the artistic director. A week after the exposé was published, and after 28 years in business, the theatre closed. The powerful community response exposed the need for third party involvement in directing scenes of intimacy and violence on-stage and in film.
Alicia Rodis, a choreographer at Intimacy Directors International, is part of a team working to change how violence and intimacy is performed and dealt with behind the scenes. “Once this exposé came out, it started a whirlwind throughout the community.” She told me over the phone. “It really opened up the conversation: how do we protect our actors?” Rodis has been choreographing combat scenes — from sword fights to hand-to-hand brawls — for over a decade. Eventually (and fortuitously), she began lending a hand during intimate scenes, stepping in for the director in order to facilitate a kiss or a cuddle. Soon, she was choreographing sex, makeout and rape scenes in addition to fight scenes. Here, we discuss the similarities and differences between choreographing scenes of intimacy and violence, the infamous Hollywood simultaneous orgasm, queer sex scenes, actor boundaries (or lack thereof), and more.
Alicia doing some casual sword throwing
How did you get involved with choreographing intimacy scenes?
I began choreographing intimacy through fight direction. The first time it happened I was doing a show where there was a slap and a kiss. They brought me in to deal with the slap, and the actors were very visibly shaken and uncomfortable with the kiss that followed. As a fight director, you read the room. It got to the kiss, and the director started hesitating. So I dove in, and started to work on it like I would a fight moment—what’s the point of contact? That hand here, that hand there. Let’s set the direction of the kiss— who’s initiating it?—just like you would for a moment of violence on stage. Giving the actors this set choreography and taking them through it, and eventually dealing with what the consent and context was—it grew into a practice.
What kind of scenes have you choreographed since then?
I work as a stunt woman—I also get called in to coordinate intimacy and sex scenes in general. The most recent was “The Rape of Lucrece,” at the New York Shakespeare Exchange, where I was brought in to do fight choreography but worked predominantly as the intimacy director. And because, of course, there’s a very famous rape scene in the play, there was ample opportunity to work through techniques we learn through Intimacy Directors International.
Where do you start with a scene—especially something as sensitive as a sex scene?
I always start with the director and pre-production information, as far as what they want from the scene, what they’re looking for. Once we get in, I immediately talk to the actors and find out what their contracts are, if there’s nudity involved, what they have already agreed to in accepting the role. When I go in to choreograph, I start with boundaries—what is off-limits? I set very specific choreography. If the actors are comfortable doing some form of improv, we put it in a very specific container. The boundaries are already set. If the actors are not comfortable, you’re fighting an uphill battle against telling a good story. Some of this is advocacy: making sure your actors are safe, making sure you’re not triggering or causing trauma, but also telling a really good story. A lot of our work is preventative; this sets things out so that the risk is mitigated.
Hollywood in general has been heavily criticized for its inaccurate sex scenes. Is that something on your mind as you work on these scenes?
Absolutely. Not everyone has been in a sword fight before, but pretty much everyone in your audience has probably been kissed or had sex. It doesn’t have to be realism, because not every piece is going to be choreographed that way, but there has to be that recognition. The main goal is telling the story. That’s really one of the big things—communication, being able to talk about all of these things that are happening, being able to say the word nipple, and be okay with it. Even if it’s a little uncomfortable, it is still safe and out in the open.
Have you ever directed a simultaneous orgasm scene? And why are those so prevalent, anyways?
I think it’s the ideal we have—look how wonderfully this couple is experiencing each other, that they’re orgasming at the same time. That is one of the many unrealistic ideals that we end up putting in our art. Not that it never happens in real life, but it’s true, that definitely is something that is more prevalent in stories of sex than in actual sex.
Have you ever directed any queer or gay love scenes? How was that experience compared to a straight sex scene?
I’ve choreographed only a few queer sex scenes, but I’ve had a lot of queer intimacy scenes—kissing, for example, and I was even brought in to work on some cuddling. I’ll say this: whenever I work on a scene that is out of my personal wheelhouse, I always work with someone before I go into the room. If it’s a lesbian sex scene, I’m doing my research and talking with the people in my life who live that experience. Often people say: “You need personal experience to choreograph something.” I’ve never been in a sword fight before but I’ve choreographed countless sword fights in my life. When I’m choreographing a male-to-male queer scene, or a trans scene, I don’t have the personal reference, but I think it’s important to do all the research necessary to make sure you’re telling that story truthfully and honoring those people’s stories.
There’s this phrase I keep hearing that actors say before a sex scene—“I’m sorry if I do, and I’m sorry if I don’t”—have you ever heard this before?
Oh…I think I know what you’re talking about, you mean either getting an erection or becoming wet?
Exactly. Is that common during sex scenes?
The conversation about erections and moisture is a conversation that has to happen, in my opinion, if there’s any point that genitals are touching any part of the person. Also, visually, you can see. I was working on a piece earlier this year and I could tell the guy in question was getting a little uncomfortable. I was like, okay, let’s address this. Erections happen. If we are putting ourselves in a position that is often equated with sensuality, our bodies feel that, and will sometimes respond. This is what I say to my actors: how your body responds to stimuli doesn’t mean anything in terms of the person you are with, and it’s one of the dangers of not talking about intimacy. If an actors have an intense kissing scene and one of them gets an erection, that’s just what you are teaching your body to do right now, it doesn’t mean you have to leave your significant other and have an affair with this actor, it just means your body is responding to the stimuli you are giving it. The conversation about what our bodies will do is an important one in intimacy work.
At the end of the day, would you rather direct a combat scene or an intimacy scene?
I would do either any day of the week, any hour. Doing stage combat is really rewarding because I love empowering actors to tell stories of violence, especially when they are people who didn’t think they could tell that story. This is especially true as a woman, working with a lot of women who are like, “I never thought I could do that: sell a punch, or take a punch and still feel empowered by the story I’m telling.” Choreographing intimacy is similarly satisfying in that a lot of the work does stem from empowerment as well, empowering these actors not to feel like they are victims or victimizing their fellow actors, feeling empowered to be a part of the process, and also to have a voice.
I was working as the fight director on Othello and the actor who played Desdemona came up to me and said: “I want you to know I have a history of domestic violence. I’ve been working on it, the director knows, I’m okay doing this scene, but I want you to be aware.” It was a gift to be able to work on that show, work with this person, who was empowered to tell a story playing the victim of domestic violence, and tell it beautifully. Choreographing intimacy is empowering, and a really interesting form of human storytelling. Sex and violence is human connection at its most base. There’s a lot to learn about it.
Michel Ghanem is a graduate MA student researching fashion and television, and a writer. He recently wrote on The Handmaid’s Tale for Slutever, and on gender inequality in the fashion industry for Fashionista.