The intimacy expert ensuring sex scenes don’t end in heartbreak or horror

Chloe Dallimore is an “intimacy co-ordinator” working in Australian cinema, TV and theatre to ensure that while the actors are comfortable, have fully consented and all is within the law, the action still sizzles and doesn’t fizzle.

Intimacy co-ordinator Chloe Dallimore.

Fitz: Chloe, I take it this is an entirely new career path in cinema and theatre that really traces its foundations to the #MeToo movement beginning five or six years ago?

CD: There was previously work in this field, but it was pushed to the front and centre due to #MeToo, as the work was suddenly highlighted as being hugely important to get right. The industry embraced the concept that, just as in a stunt scene you need a stunt coordinator, and in a dance number you employ a choreographer, in an intimate scene you must employ an intimacy coordinator.

Fitz: What guided you to work in such an interesting space?

CD: My background is as a dancer, which got me used to being tactile with other people and performers, while there were limits. Then I worked in musical theatre before becoming President of Actors Equity for seven years, with #MeToo breaking in the middle of that tenure. We had already known that we had an issue and had put a survey around sexual harassment and bullying, which saw the highest membership response to a survey in the history of the Union. Then #MeToo broke and half as many people again filled out the survey.

Fitz: I am guessing 98 per cent of the complainants of sexual harassment would have been women?

Chloe Dallimore has done a lot of work on a show like Heartbreak High on Netflix.Credit: Mark Rogers/Netflix

CD: No, and that was what was so fascinating. It was essentially a 50/50 split. We also asked about sexual orientation and gender, and there was no particular weight of either. It was across the board. So we talked, held workshops, brought out experts, and established intimacy guidelines which came under the Occupational Health & Safety umbrella. Everyone went, “Oh my God, this just makes total sense.”

Fitz: And so a new profession was born and you were soon a part of it? Can you name-drop some of the biggest productions you’ve co-ordinated intimacy on?

CD: Heartbreak High; Last King of the Cross; Home & Away; Three Thousand Years of Longing; Rocky Horror Show; Jagged Little Pill; Phantom of the Opera; Girl from the North Country are just a few, and we’ve worked with all the Kennedy Miller Mitchell productions, the Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir, and Melbourne Theatre Company. We’re constantly working with all of those big platforms.

Fitz: So, let’s say for Last King of the Cross, you have the actors on set, and the director in her chair about to call “Action!” Are you in the seat alongside on a chair marked “Intimacy Co-ordinator”, ready to leap out as the actors go in for the clinch?

CD: I’m involved a lot earlier than that, from the pre-production stage and having the conversations from the outset. On something like Heartbreak High, which has a lot of intimacy, I’d be there multiple times a week.

Fitz: And how does it work? In the unlikely case that I am cast with Julia Roberts and the script calls for a kissing scene, let’s say one of us – OK, her – has some grave concerns, do we come and knock on your door to talk it through? Is that your starting point?

CD: You wouldn’t have to wait until you’re actually there on set. We go through the script and isolate the scenes in which there is intimate content. We determine which has nudity; which has transfer of bodily fluids; which would involve kissing, simulated sex or intimate public scenarios such as giving birth. And we talk it through. You get the gist.

Fitz: I get the gist. Let’s start with kissing. Is it verboten, forbidden if you’re doing a kissing scene, for the actor not to keep his or her tongue in their own mouth?

Dallimore has also worked on Home and Away.Credit: Endemol Shine/Seven Network

CD: Yes, sir. Generally, nothing, nothing penetrates any orifice.

Fitz: Okay. That's the first cardinal principle?

CD: But if the director and the actors do decide that using tongues might be appropriate for the storytelling of the kiss, then that’s discussed. So in your example of kissing Julia Roberts, I would have a phone conversation or a Zoom with you beforehand. And a separate Zoom conversation with Julia Roberts. And we would have a chat about anything that might be concerning. I also check in on any medical stuff that might be important for me to know in regards to that scene. So for example, things like cold sores, etc. Because if you develop a cold sore prior to shoot, we actually can’t do that kiss. We can’t do a lip-to-lip kiss on the day and we’d have to find another solution or reschedule.

Fitz: So, no doubt to her huge relief, let us leave Ms Roberts out of the next shoot. What happens if, in a coming intimate scene the male actor says “I’m afraid that I’m going to have a physical reaction to rolling around on the bed with this wonderful woman”?

CD: I do get asked that a lot. It’s usually the question that “penis owners” or “those with external organs” – and I say that because that isn’t just necessarily a male gender identity, and could be a transgender person – ask. So penis owners will often say exactly that, particularly if it’s one of their first times doing simulated sex or an intimate thing. And so the first thing I let them know is if they do get a reaction, it’s an initial animalistic response, it’s chemicals in your brain thinking you might be having sex. And I tell their co-star, “Don’t be flattered. It’s just an animalistic response.”

Fitz: And do you also say, “Don't be offended”?

CD: Yes.

Fitz: Are there ways around it anyway? A piece in the New York Times last month said there are special pants that you can wear. So that even if that happens, there’ll be padding.

Fitz imagines that Julia Roberts might not be keen on an intimate scene with him.Credit: Getty

CD: I get fibreglass cricket boxes. Rebel Sports in Randwick think it’s very odd that I buy so many cricket boxes every month! And we also have a “Stop action” word that is decided beforehand.

Fitz: What’s the word? You mean someone is going in for the clinch, feels a stirring and suddenly shouts out something like “Chrysanthemum!”

CD: I’m loath to say the kind of phrases because it’s kind of letting the cat out of the bag, but it will be something that no one would know that’s occurring.

Fitz: Let’s talk consent. #MeToo coincided in Australia with several actresses coming forward to make allegations that while on stage, they had been victims of intimate physical contact they had not consented to. I imagine those episodes also made the industry realise that change was needed, for the safety of all?

CD: Without judging what did or didn’t happen, my perception is that if the processes that we have now put in place on live theatre productions had been put in place at those times, those scenarios would not have occurred. I am working on the current Rocky Horror Show and everyone has been really disciplined in embracing better practices.

Fitz: Surely Rocky Horror is a minefield? What about the scene where Frank-N-Furter first slips into the bed of Brad and then into the bed of Janet, both times disguised, first as Janet, then as Brad? At the time Rocky Horror came out, those scenes were somewhere between quixotic, exotic and erotic. But right now, aren’t the scenes themselves problematic? Slipping into somebody’s bed under the guise of being somebody else, and engaging in even preliminary intimacy is sexual assault.

CD: (Long pause.) Yeah, so those are exactly the awkward conversations we have to have, as we work out how to navigate those scenes.

Fitz: OK, let’s say, all that is sorted. We have comfortable consent covered, all actors are relaxed about what is asked of them. Your second purpose is believability. How often does a director-producer say to you, “That bloke looks like he’s kissing a statue? Chloe, can you pep that up a bit, we need a bit more sizzle!”

The Rocky Horror Show. A minefield in the post #MeToo era?Credit: Nikki Short

CD: That’s absolutely part of it. Sometimes an act can be made more believable by using a better camera angle. Sometimes it’s by making actors more comfortable, so it does look authentic. So yes, I have been sometimes given the moniker of “Awkward kiss fixer”.

Fitz: I would have called you Ms Dally More!

CD: Or indeed, Ms Dally Less. I’ve heard them all.

Fitz: What about in the making of Australian porn films? Do they have intimacy counsellors?

CD: They already have very strict protocols around consent, and in many ways the porn film industry has been ahead of the wider entertainment industry. But, yes, there is one intimacy counsellor who specialises in porn.

Fitz: Now, this is a delicate question, but I’ll just put it out there. Your own intimate life is none of my damn business, nor the readers, but, and please only answer if you consent, and are totally comfortable, should you happen to kiss the forehead of your date or partner on a Saturday night, do you take a quiet mental note, “That’s a nice intimate move, I should remember that”?

CD: (Uproarious laughter, and a little gasping, going for twenty seconds.) I know … I know … what you’re getting at. I’m just working out how to answer… I would be being dishonest if I said no. I have had moments of intimacy where I’ve gone “Now that would an interesting shot”.

Fitz: Given the legal issues, is the other part of your role to be on the spot as intimacy occurs and to be able to confirm, perhaps in 20 years time that, “No, Your Honour, the claimant specifically said to me at the time that there were no issues, and I personally saw no evidence of distress.”

CD: Correct. The legal side is very important. And particularly with American productions, we have to help the lawyers create nudity waivers which very clearly state what the actors are OK with having seen on screen, and we are talking deep specificity. Say with low cleavage, it will specify exactly how much of the curvature of the breast be visible, and if that includes the areola, but not the whole nipple. It has to be written down; the shooting has to try to keep to it, and the final cut scene must keep to it.

Fitz: Cut! Thank you. That’s a wrap, everyone. I will be in my trailer.

Quote of the week

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Those who make it happen.

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Those who say “What the hell just happened?”

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