The Making of Vida’s ‘Radical’ Queer Sex Scene

Photo: Starz Entertainment, LLC

The third episode of Starz’s Vida revealed what viewers probably already suspected: Emma (Mishel Prada) is gay. But surprise or no, the way the episode disclosed that detail — in a heart-thumping opening sex scene — made it instantly memorable and remarkable.

With Jarina De Marco’s “Tigre” blasting, the usually uptight Emma, wearing black lingerie, is getting her toes sucked. The gender of her partner, Sam (Michelle Badillo), is kept deliberately unclear until the couple moves on to standing sex, when Sam, who is nonbinary, is completely nude. From there, Emma throws Sam on the hardwood floor, removes her panties, and sits on Sam’s face.

Of all the sex scenes in Vida — and there are many — this was the one the writers discussed and revised the most. “It’s a radical act to put two brown bodies on the screen already, but to put two queer bodies having queer sex like this is a political act,” creator and showrunner Tanya Saracho said. “I knew, if we got it right, it was going to be really important because we don’t see this representation, this imagery, ever, really. I’m so proud of it.”

The priority in filming the scene, as with all of the show’s sex scenes, was to avoid any exploitation of the female actors. “Our goal was to represent the female gaze, female liberation, and as a sexual woman myself, I appreciate that very much. I love that we are going against stereotypes, particularly in the Latin community,” director of photography Carmen Cabana said. “Women being tough in sex and actively seeking their own pleasure and satisfying their particular cravings is bold for TV — and wonderful, in my opinion.”

The Script

If Emma and her younger sister Lyn (Melissa Barrera) have one thing in common, it’s their attitudes toward sex. When Saracho was creating the characters, she designed both to be in charge of their sexual power, even though they do so in different ways: Emma prefers anonymous sex that she controls and is negotiated ahead of time, while Lyn wields sex like a superpower and uses it to manipulate her partners. “What I notice a lot about millennials is that they have agency over their sexuality,” Saracho said. “They might still make bad decisions when it comes to emotional things sometimes, but there’s an agency they have over how and who they have sex with that we didn’t have in my generation. It’s something I admire. Everything else might be falling apart, but they know how they want it and what they want. I wanted both of these sisters to be steeped in that.”

The Vida writers, which include four queer women, dedicated several days to discussing every aspect of the scene and staging demonstrations in the writers room. “This is our chance to have a femme queer girl have sex with a nonbinary, gender nonconforming person and see what that looks like,” Saracho said. “When you first see Sam, you don’t know if they’re male or female, and then we see the breasts, and then we see them be on bottom — not on top, like you would think. All of these moments were workshopped and everyone went around the room and shared their experiences. It was a lively few days making it as authentic as possible.”

The Actors

Photo: Erica Parise/Starz Entertainment, LLC

For both Prada and Badillo, who met for the first time in rehearsals, this was their first sex scene. Prada says she felt “emboldened” not just by Emma’s physical power in the scene but also by the show’s depiction of sex and nudity through the female gaze.

“I grew up very conservative Christian and I was taught that you’re allowed to be sexy but not sexual,” Prada said. “There was something really amazing about feeling empowered and feeling in complete control that day on set. Historically, lesbian sex has been fetishized to a point that it’s almost not real, and I think it’s time for us to talk about it and normalize it. We come from a culture where we don’t talk about it. I think about me as a child growing up. What if my sexuality had been celebrated instead of shamed?”

Badillo, a writer for One Day at a Time, had not acted professionally but Saracho thought she had the perfect look for the scene, so she approached her about it over email. The two women had previously met on the set of One Day at a Time when Saracho attended a taping. “I thought she was very interesting and I follow her on Instagram, so she was in my orbit,” Saracho said. “When someone asked me what Sam looks like in the writers room, I pulled up Michelle’s Instagram and said, ‘We could get an actor that looks like Michelle Badillo.’ But then I said, ‘What if we could get Michelle Badillo?’”

Once she was approached, it took Badillo only a few minutes to agree to play Sam. “I haven’t acted professionally before, let alone being fully nude doing a sex scene,” she said with a laugh. “But I thought, first of all, if I’m going to do it, I’m never going to be in safer hands than with Tanya. Second, I thought it would be so cool to be part of this tradition of powerful queer Latina sex scenes on TV — and then I was like, Oh wait, there is no tradition of that. So I thought if I can be a part of that, I’ll get over any kind of awkward body shame I might have and do it for the history.”

The Filming

Two days before they filmed the scene, Prada and Badillo rehearsed it with Saracho, other producers, Cabana, and episode director Rashaad Ernesto Green. Starz requires that all sex scenes be detailed in writing and signed off by all parties before they can be filmed, and the set was closed, with only a small group of essential crew members allowed to stay.

Even though the scene was shot over four hours at night, Badillo arrived on set earlier that day so she and Prada would have time to get comfortable with one another. When it got closer to show time, Badillo says she took a lot of deep breaths: “I knew it wasn’t exploitative, so I didn’t have any of the concerns people might have doing a sex scene. I just thought, Focus on what it means. And then, immediately when I got to set, I had to go to makeup to cover up all the tattoos on my body. And I have a tattoo on my butt. So, within 15 minutes, I was naked and getting makeup applied to my butt. It was like, You’re in it to win it!

As the recipient of the toe sucking, Prada had different concerns, which is why she splurged on a $100 pedicure beforehand. “In my normal sex life, I never done that, so I looked into it,” she said. “And then, right before it, my makeup person soaked some little rags in mouthwash and cleaned my feet so we could be respectful of each other and make it nice.” (Badillo appreciated the foot cleanse: “This is a classy lady! I couldn’t have asked for a better scene partner,” she said. “She’s one of the classiest and most thoughtful ladies.”)

Although most sex scenes on Vida are filmed with a handheld camera, this scene’s many angles required a second camera, which was operated by David J. Frederick. When it came to framing the shots, Cabana looked for ways to enhance the dramatic journey of the characters moment by moment. “We used the elements within the space as foregrounds that would frame them in specific ways,” she said. “One foreground that I loved was this chair that had horn-like ends. If I lowered the camera just enough, it created this phallic shape right below the two of them. The scene also called for a sense of danger. We wanted the audience to wonder where Emma was and if she was putting herself at risk, so those shapes along with the street light tonality contributed to the prohibitive tone.”

To keep Sam’s gender identity a mystery, Cabana designed the opening sequence with close-ups and used a camera that traveled across Emma’s body to her feet. “Sam, played by Michelle, had a fantastic look and she made it very easy for me to film her from different angles at first without revealing female anatomy,” she said. Meanwhile, Prada said she found Emma’s dominance challenging, but Saracho remembers it differently. “I kept thinking, oh my God, Mishel’s throwing Badillo too hard on the hardwood floor!” Saracho said, laughing. “Nobody complained but I was worried about Badillo’s shoulder blades. We had rehearsed it and everything but, you know, fully naked, owww!” For her part, Badillo said she was so pumped with adrenaline that she didn’t feel a thing. “We did that one a lot because she has to throw me down and sit on my face and the angle is really important,” she said. “That quickly became very funny because it felt like a comedy reel, like, how many times could I hit the floor and have her sit on my face? It’s funny how immediately desexualized these scenes become. Every time they called ‘cut,’ Mishel and I would just sit, laughing and hugging each other.”

After Emma throws Sam down on the floor, she removes her underwear. The first time they filmed that sequence, an alarmed producer rushed on set to make sure Prada was okay. “We can see your butt!” Prada recalled the producer telling her. “What? Oh my gosh, does it look bad? Is that why she’s freaking out?” she thought. When the producer told Prada it looked fine but they needed her approval because that hadn’t been agreed to beforehand, she started laughing. “Um, guys, me being from Miami, that’s not nudity!”

But Prada says she did appreciate all of the ways her bosses were considerate. After the scene was edited, Saracho showed it to her to make sure she was comfortable with the final version that would air. She even slowed the footage down and pointed out how “the perverts” would look at it, Prada added. “I don’t know if it’s because after spending so much time on set, it felt like a summer camp, but I just don’t think twice about it,” she said. “I think it makes sense for Emma. It’s really amazing to not feel any shame over it. I know that my mom and some of my family are not going to be too happy about it, but I think it’s time that we start celebrating sexuality as opposed to shaming it.”

The Song

“Tigre,” which the Dominican-born De Marco wrote for Broad City, is catchy and easy to remember. For most of the song, she’s repeating, “Tu lo que quieres es que te coma el tigre,” which means “What you want is for the tiger to eat you.” But in Dominican slang, “tiguere” also refers to a womanizer or slick dude.

“Tigre” is one of Saracho’s favorite songs. “When the editor gave me the first cut, it had this really sexy song, you know, like looking at sexy girls type of song,” Saracho said. “And I was like, No, no, no, it’s so wrong. I want something offbeat. And I thought of ‘Tigre’ so we tried it and everybody was like, ‘It’s perfect!’ Tiguerazo! Tiguerazo! Que te coma el tigre and she squats on her face. It’s so good!”

The song makes Prada laugh all of the time. “It’s hysterical,” she said. “Tanya’s got such a great sense of humor. With our writers room being all Latinx, it allows us to poke a little fun at ourselves and to reveal things about ourselves that you really couldn’t do on another show.”

The Making of Vida’s ‘Radical’ Queer Sex Scene