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Tuesday 29 January 2019

Simulating sex in the #metoo era

Stripping for the camera is not as straightforward as it used to be, says the actor Jonathan Cake

I’m taking my clothes off and simulating sex on camera next week. What? No big deal. It’s not like I haven’t done it before. A quick, unreliable count in my head tells me that I’ve done it at least, ooh, what, a dozen times?

I’m an actor, I’m 51, I’ve had a career which has contained a liberal sprinkling of naked on-camera sex, so what are you looking at? None of the dozen flagrante delicto’s (hang on, now I’m remembering more..ah, I wonder how she’s doing these days? And him! His beard was so soft…) were porn shoots, I’d like to make that clear. Though one early outing, filmed in South Africa in the early days of cheap video and viewed many years later on a grainy hotel room Hitachi definitely evoked the nuanced acting styles and rich plotting of soft-core erotica. No, these scenes have always been in the service of the text and all done, as older readers might recall Kenny Everett shrieking, in the best possible taste. Except for that one in Miss Marple, that was just gross.

What makes this (the 17th? 18th?) outing of my career different is the call I received last week from the Intimacy Coordinator. “Hi, this is the intimacy coordinator. I wanted to make sure you felt comfortable with the required nudity in next week’s episode? Have you worn a cock sock before?” Jeff Bridges has a stand-in who’s been working with him in films for fifty years. I feel in a similar spirit of loyalty that I should have kept some of my old cock socks.

This is an entirely new innovation in my industry and one I’m thrilled by. Though probably not half as thrilled as the female actors that this no doubt busy woman is calling to reassure. Work practices are changing everywhere as a result of sexual harassment and nowhere more so than in the entertainment industry. As the revelations of the last two years have proved, it’s an industry rife with the possibility of misinterpretable boundaries and sexually exploitable power relations.

And it’s the only industry I can think of – apart from perhaps sports and pole dancing – where taking your clothes off is a routine part of your job. In my experience these scenes are not just unerotic to enact, they’re positively anti-erotic. Both parties are generally in a goosepimply state of nerves and self-consciousness and no matter how strict the first assistant director is about a “closed set”, there’s always a bloke fanning smoke round your naked buttocks while you fumble for a towel and a script lady whispering “You licked her ear BEFORE she pinched your nipple, not the other way around…”

Despite the arctic lack of passion that generally predominates there have still been too many times when frazzled and probably embarrassed directors have said to me and my scene partner: “Er, how about you two just, um, you know, go for it? That cool? Ok, let’s shoot…” Hello Intimacy Coordinator, what took you so long?

I live in California, a place that prides itself on leading where others follow; tech, pilates, Dwayne Johnson, anal bleaching. If these culture-shapers didn’t start here, then California has branded and exported them as their own. It’s the petri dish of America’s trends. What California is doing today the rest of the world will grudgingly adopt and pay through the nose for later. So is the Intimacy Coordinator a post #metoo bellwether for the wider world? And if it is, what will the Intimacy Coordinator spawn in other careers?

Well for a start the professions on the eternally disputatious frontline of touching will presumably all start to have overseers. Politicians on the campaign trail might avail themselves of their party’s “skin tactility specialist” to avoid any misinterpretation of the old phrase “pressing the flesh”. “Playing doctors and nurses” sounds a bit creepy when applied to actual doctors and nurses, leaving the caring professions in need of an independently appointed touch coach. When a masseur or masseuse moves to the glutes, will the mass-moniteur sitting next to the scented candle activate a discreet egg timer? This might all sound absurd but anyone who’s had an unpleasant experience, or worse, with a politician, doctor, body worker or any profession licensed to touch a stranger might be delighted by the idea of some long overdue oversight.

But “intimacy” isn’t just confined to the tactile professions. The office, whatever amorphous form that might take in 2019, can’t help but be a place of intimacy. We spend a huge portion of our waking lives there, interacting with our colleagues, sharing professional highs and lows and personal ones: births, separations, triumphs, losses, bereavements, all the messy texture of our lives.

Much as we’d like to think our personal lives can be kept separate from our professional, we’re often at our most vulnerable in the workplace when trying to maintain an appearance comes up against the chaos of our feelings. Office romances thrive because they shouldn’t. Feelings are heightened in situations of constraint. Bosses are valued for their non-robot attributes, because they are considered “human”, “responsive”, “warm” – all qualities that sound like a ticking bomb in today’s workspace. But what person isn’t moved to hug another or place a hand on their shoulder when they hear of a colleague’s bad news?

In the endlessly misinterpretable area of non-verbal communication – 98 per cent, we’re told, of how humans communicate – when will the disputed boundaries of propriety move from touching to just looking? “He looked at me funny” may not be a childish way of describing a communication much longer but a basis for genuine complaint. How long before the arbiters of boundaries in Human Resources become negotiators of daily interactions in all business, walking the halls to arbitrate on any and all human interfaces, the ubiquitous intimacy coordinators of our working lives?

getty images

Michael Caine on the set of ‘Get Carter’

Amid the wider implications for intimacy coordinators in all our lives one wonders how Michael Caine’s, perhaps apocryphal, line of reassurance before a sex scene would go over these days. Legend has it that he’d wander over to his leading lady and just say ” Sorry”. “What for?” would come the reply. “Well, sorry if I get an erection. And sorry if I don’t…”

Personally, I wish I’d had an intimacy coordinator for all my previous, um, outings (stop it). I particularly remember a disastrous free-for-all on a Torquay beach in October, standing in for the Cote D’Azur in August.

I, as a Nietzscheanly macho politician of the 1930s was to emerge naked from the warm and glamorous surf while my mistress snapped a compromising photo of me. It was to be my first full-frontal nude scene, a big day in a young actor’s life. The first problem was that our director decided at the last moment that he wanted the mistress naked too (“Um…intimacy coordinator!”) and so there were understandably lengthy discussions about that surprise.

She finally and reluctantly went behind a rock to have her bum made up. I, naked under my special-issue bathrobe, turned to wade out to sea. Except there was no sea. The tide had vanished and was now so far out it looked like I’d be beginning the shot somewhere near Calais. The second problem was that, when I finally waded out to a spot deep enough to cover my embarrassment and turned back around to the crew onshore, I saw that while you could enforce a closed set it was harder to enforce a closed beach. Coach parties lined the headland, all curious to see what this odd bloke was doing freezing his nads off in a bathrobe in the English channel in October. Nothing to be done now. I gritted my teeth, dropped the robe. “Turning” said the distressingly young female camera trainee standing next to me in waders, brandishing a clapper board near my genitalia. “Sound speed” said the boom operator. “And…action!” crackled someone’s walkie talkie.


Jonathan Cake as Oswald Mosley

I set off through the water, towards the beach, ha ha, glamour, yes, nudity, of course, freedom, the South of France, Nietzsche…But the beach was so far, so very far away. Instead of it just being a brief glimpse of a politician’s tackle, it felt like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia coming over the horizon on his camel. Except it wasn’t a camel. It was Torquay. It was nerves. It was really cold. It was, let’s face it, a cashew. Disturbed by how far I was from the beach, I broke into an ill-advised jog, thus only emphasising the movement of the cashew, like a taxi driver’s tiny dashboard toy. I finally made landfall, the poor shivering mistress snapped the pic, I acted all shameless and Nietzschean and finally the director called a merciful “cut”. And then, the worst words I’d heard in my life thus far: “Going again…” I remember it took a while for a dry robe to arrive.

It’s taken a while for the Intimacy Coordinator to arrive. But I’m so glad she’s shown up, with a towel, a kind word, a lack of embarrassment, a binding contract and a range of heated cock socks.