When many an actress or actor are asked on a talk show or in a magazine what it was like doing a sex scene in the project they’re promoting, they always respond with something like, “Oh, my co-star is just so great and made me feel really comfortable, and the crew is so professional, blah, blah, blah, so it really isn’t a big deal, just another day at work.” Yeah, right. I don't think it is at all another day at work, which is why their agent probably negotiated detailed language in their contract saying what could and could not be shown: It is very common to see deal terms in an actor’s contract such as, “You can show breast but no nipple; above-the-waist and side of buttock only; and artist has approval of body double, if used.” And I don’t care how professional a crew is, I find it hard to believe it isn’t awkward to be naked and get busy in front of them; otherwise, why would sex scenes always be filmed on a “closed set,” with only essential personnel allowed during filming? For me, it is incredibly uncomfortable to even watch a sex scene in a movie theater: I always make sure to allow myself no movement or facial expression when one unfolds, in case someone looks over at me and misinterprets my countenance or a shift in body position as an indication that I’m deriving any kind of pervy/Paul Reubens–like pleasure from what is taking place onscreen — I can’t even imagine what it is like for the actors performing the sex scene to have to do that in front of even a reduced crew of union members, who may act impassive but certainly aren’t thinking that it’s just another day at work. So this week, I interviewed two actresses and one actor about their experiences with this odd area of filmmaking to find out what the experience is really like. To gain the most candid responses, I agreed to not use their real names, but I will say that they have all appeared in many films and you have most likely seen each of them onscreen a number of times.
What was it like the first time you did a sex scene?
Betty: I had to call at least four girlfriends, two sisters, and devote a therapy session to it, and of course starve myself for days leading up to it. And when I went to work that morning the wise costumer told me that I would be the most powerful woman on the set once I was naked, because there was probably no crew person willing to do what I was doing. I found that really encouraging. But after the first half-hour of shooting, anxiety and adrenaline gave way to boredom and by the time we came back to the scene after lunch, I hardly bothered putting on the robe between takes.
Veronica: It wasn't just me and one other person, it was four of us in a group sex scene. Before we started, everyone had their bathrobes on and everyone was very tense. Right up to the point when they started to roll film, and when I would have to take my clothes off, I thought I was going to throw up. But once the director yelled action, I was fine. I wasn't even aware of set anymore, I was in the moment. After we finished it was awkward and I was thinking, Was his dick touching my leg, and where is my robe?
Archie: The first time I had to do a sex scene was awkward, to say the least. The actress and I both had a crush on each other, but were too nervous to ever do anything about it. When it came time to shoot the scene, however, I got nervous, and as a result, never got an erection. Because we both secretly liked each other, the actress was furious at my lack of erection and took it like a rejection. Things were always a little dodgy after that between us.
Have you ever been involved with someone romantically before you had to do a love scene together, or have you started a relationship with someone after shooting a love scene?
Betty: I did have a huge crush on a guy I had onscreen sex with and we skipped lunch to rehearse the scene; we did not invite the director. And while I thought it was going to turn into a romance, he was trying to reconcile that week with his estranged wife, so it didn't. She ended up leaving him anyway for a big star, so we should've had our fling. It's possible, of course, that he was just not that into me.
Veronica: Like all actors, I have had an on-set romance and have had a relationship with the actor with whom I was supposed to be in love with. If the producer and director have done their job well, they cast actors who have chemistry, so it makes it easy to fall for them.
Archie: I once did a sex scene with a girl I had just started to date on the film we worked on. But it ended up being really awkward, because it felt like we were letting strangers into the bedroom. It also was odd because I became aware of the notion that we were just cliché actors doing what was expected of us; and worse, the notion that both of us started the relationship — more her, I know I'm pointing fingers — in order to help our "performances."
Have you ever done a love scene with someone whom you really didn’t like?
Betty: Yes. It was pretty gruesome. Like being in a bad relationship, thinking, What am I doing in bed with him? And it happened to be on a soap, so that's like being stuck in a bad marriage.
Veronica: I have had to do sex scenes with people who on some chemical level I was repulsed by, and that was hard work. I had to do many sex scenes with a guy who was very nice but I was repulsed by him. It was really hard. The majority of the time you're not attracted to the people you have to have a sex scene with and it is tough.
Archie: I have been fortunate to have never done a sex scene with someone I didn't like. However, sex scenes with someone you're not attracted to are pretty unpleasant, and not to be looked forward to at all.
Have you or the person with whom you’ve been doing a scene ever become, uh, aroused?
Betty: Not to mention any names, but one actor came on me during the take. I had to surreptitiously wipe myself off with the sheet. Fortunately, I liked the guy. I found it a little flattering and a little creepy. We never talked about it, so I can't tell you if it was Method acting on his part or if he just found me pretty, but I suspect I'm not the only actress who's had this experience. But I can tell you that twenty years later, when I run into him, my first thought is, There's the guy that had on-camera sex with my abdomen.
Veronica: Usually when there is nudity involved there is no arousal, people are too freaked out. You're more likely to get acorn syndrome than anything else. I’ve had instances when they've been clothed and got hard, but not while naked. And for me, I don't think there was an occasion when I was fully turned-on, but there have been instances where it was pleasant as opposed to me chocking back my vomit.
Archie: Arousal during a sex scene, ironically or not, is pretty much the only thing that can make it truly enjoyable. It's hard to categorize it as "work" if you're lucky enough to attain this kind of Nirvana on a set. And usually, let's be honest now, who is going to be offended if someone knows they turn you on? Everyone's got an ego: especially actresses. The offense for many actors, I'll bet my boots, is actually when the actor fails to get aroused — actors are already so insecure that for some, that's all the confirmation they need to realize the entire universe is pitted against them.
Do you feel that it is unfair that when it comes to nudity, women are so much more exposed than men?
Betty: I dunno. Men are sometimes as freaked having to go shirtless as women are getting naked altogether. For me, once I was down to my undies, or a string bikini, I might as well go for broke. What's a nipple or two between friends? Several times I'd be in some flesh-colored bodysuit or G-string, but they'd keep catching the edge of it on-camera, so I'd just take it off to expedite the filming process. Since I never did an X-rated movie, I trusted that whatever body parts they caught on film that they didn't want, they'd deal with in editing. But unfair? Probably, but there are so many unfair things about being a woman in film — and other industries — what's one more?
Veronica: No, I guess not. Let's face it, for male nudity to be anything meaningful they have to show their dick. A woman doesn't have to go all the way for it to be a big deal. Guys have so much at stake: "Is it big enough, is it shaped well, is it all shrunk up?" It is harder for a guy to be aesthetically pleasing when naked, in my opinion.
Archie: I don't think it's unfair that women show more nudity in movies at all. As a dude, the truth is that a man's package is way more, well, visible. You're never going to see much more than a bit of muff from a woman in a scene, and that is really little more than the coming attraction for what really lies beneath. On the other hand, once you see an actor’s dong, you've got a pretty good idea of the kind of firepower he's packing.
Follow Gavin Polone on Twitter: @gavinpolone