Editor's Note: Among other things, sex may be the most vulnerable experience a person can have. That's part of what makes it so great — and awkward and intimate. But I'd argue that pretending to do it in front of a dozen strangers, plus a camera, may be event more intense. That's why I'm honored to share Jen Ponton's story of shooting her first sex scene. This is a lesson in the incredible power of vulnerability, self-expression, and just getting over it and having fun.
Here it comes, I thought. My stomach lurched and my palms were ice. The next morning, I’d be shooting my first sex scene.
My name is Jen Ponton, and I’m an actress often referred to as “that girl from that thing!” You may have referred to me similarly if you’ve seen me on 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Orange is the New Black, or any cop procedural shot in New York City. In 2011, I filmed a feature called Love on the Run. It wasn’t my first film, but it was the first in which I’d played a romantic lead. In fact, those sex scenes may well have been the first ever written with someone like me in mind. After all, I’m a size 22.
Being fat is a pretty unique experience in this industry. The question I’m most often asked by far is: “Does your size help or hurt your career?” For the most part, that’s up to me — and whether or not I see the glass as half empty or full. Most of the roles I’m cast in are sizeless; the story just requires a sweet and overeager or strange and funny actress. But there are certain realities I’ve had to face in this business (slash the world we live in). I’d never been considered for a leading-lady part. Sassy best friends? Sure! Shy, self-deprecating wallflowers? I could book those roles in my sleep! But the Confident Romantic Lead remained elusive to me and anyone else over a size 14 (let’s be real — over a size 2). That is, until Love on the Run.
Like so many plus size women, I’d spent much of my life feeling like a tired fat-girl trope. I’d been trying to diet, starve, and Jazzercise away my round, soft body since childhood, forever wishing to be anyone but myself. It was my whole life right up through college. I was a theater major at a liberal arts college, which, among other things, taught me that I could never be a lead in this body. Going into the entertainment industry felt like diving into shark-infested waters with a chum bucket strapped to my back.
Then, I discovered the body positive movement — and things began to change. I joined a blog ring called The Fatosphere and learned about things like Health at Every Size, Fat Acceptance, The Adipositivity Project, and the many bloggers and activists teaching people of size a new way to see themselves. Slowly, I began to see myself differently. I started my own blog, examining the role of sizism in the entertainment industry. I was able to speak to the often frustrating — and sometimes really exciting — experience of not just being a fat person, but also playing one on TV. A new goal stirred inside of me: I wanted to find and play lead characters, who weren’t defined by size. Enter: Love On The Run.
When my agent emailed me to confirm the audition, my breath caught in my throat. It was a dark, quirky rom-com starring “Franny,” a confident, bubbly sweetheart. The film centered on a twisted Cinderella concept: Franny is a wide-eyed optimist taking care of her helpless family when she winds up taken hostage by a bank robber — her rogue Prince Charming — and is whisked away. Felon or not, Franny believes in miracles and true love and doesn’t let anything get her down. She is lovely! She is sunny! She is 250 pounds!
Franny is no trope. She is self-possessing, sexual, and romantic. I was absolutely hell-bent on getting that part. And sure enough, within a month, I was headed to set with my co-stars, Frances Fisher, Annaleigh Ashford, and my romantic lead, Steve Howey.
It was truly remarkable how unremarkable my body was during the shoot. In a 90-page script, there were very few references to Franny’s size. Most notably, there was not a disparaging remark that Franny made about herself. The omission of self-loathing was huge. This was the role model I wanted to become — the one I’d needed when I was younger. Not only was I able to enjoy playing Franny, but I also felt truly embraced and respected as a person on set. My body was no longer a boundary.
Then it came time to shoot the sex scenes, and all my newfound confidence tanked. That morning, I lingered in the shower, hoping I might close my eyes and suddenly wind up in Tahiti — anywhere but other side of a camera, buck naked. I’d done nudity before, but somehow, never in a sexual context. Being filmed as an object of desire was far beyond my comfort zone.
The jabbering 12-year-old in me took hold, certain that it was a trap, a setup, like at school dances when boys had placed bets that they wouldn’t dance with me. There’s no way these people want you to get almost-naked and actually seem like you’re having a fun, sexy time, unhelpful 7th-grade me said. It’s all one big fat joke.
My co-star Steve sat near me, unfazed, while I tried to sink into my plush, purple robe and disappear. My director jokingly offered me Xanax (and I thought about taking it). Our second assistant director, Niki, very gently called me to set, rubbing my back and telling me I’d be just fine. As we got to the motel room setup, I pulled the robe tighter. My fingers were ice, and I shook in my nipple pasties and painted-on underwear. Steve joked that they’d done far worse to him on Shameless (he was assigned full-frontal nudity in the first episode). He laid back on the bed in his cowboy boots and a production assistant played thick layers of folded sheets and towels over his pelvis (this “modesty buffer” allows actors several inches of separation as they simulate sex). The room couldn’t have been more loving, supportive, and welcoming — but I couldn’t fathom that I was about to put it all out there: Not just my body, but my body, vulnerability, and sexuality combined.
Our producer, Amy, pulled me aside, saying, “You know this is not a joke, right, honey? This is going to be so important. You’re going to be so beautiful. I promise you.”
I turned toward the bed, swallowing hard. The scene was scripted with Franny on top — a strong statement. While plus women can (and absolutely do) enjoy all kinds of sexual positions, girl-on-top can bring up a lot of anxiety: What if I crush him? Does he really want to see my body like this? I no longer worried about that in my real life, but I certainly did as I mounted the movie star being paid to pretend to have sex with me.
I remembered Amy’s words as I sat atop the two feet of fabric between me and Steve, as our cinematographer lit me in ethereal dawn light. I held myself carefully, looking for any sign of discomfort from Steve. But he was peaceful, at ease. I made nervous small talk about pasties until, finally, the director called, “Action!”
I summoned every drop of bravery inside me, and we began the pantomime. Moving through the motions of simulated sex, I tried to shake off the old, anxious voice in my head and remember the woman I am without a camera on me. I thought how I move during sex, how I sound. I reminded myself that I’d banned body shame from my own bedroom, embracing pleasure and desire. I told myself that if I was too chicken to do this for myself alone, then I would have to do it for all the women of size who’d been taught to see themselves as sexless and unwanted. Finally, a timid moan escaped my lips.
The longer we shot, the more vocal I became, varying my pitch and volume. If there was anything turning me on in earnest, it was my own growing bad-assery. Despite all my fears, I realized, I was actually crushing this scene. My confidence unfurled, and I began undulating, moving back and forth and rolling my hips in time. Beneath me, I noticed Steve was relaxing too. It suddenly hit me that I was in the driver’s seat. I was fully empowered, both as the character of Franny, seizing pleasure for herself, and as Jen, the lead actress, calling the shots, setting the pace, and literally sitting in a position of power.
The scene eventually peaked in a flurry of gasps and moans and thrusts, and the director yelled, “Cut!” I felt adrenaline and pride surging through me. Someone handed me my robe, though I was no longer in a rush to cover up. If we needed to do another take, I realized, I’d be able to jump right back on the towels — no problem. I was a different person by the time we’d wrapped the scene. Terrifying though it had been, I’d necessarily embraced myself that much more. I had found my brave protagonist and brought her to life, in all her soft flesh and curves. I’d allowed her to take up space with no shame and no apologies.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.