Imagine you’re straddling someone. Bum out, legs spread and giving your best "Yes, I'm having a really good time" face. You’re in the moment. You’re feeling it and then suddenly: "Cut!" There was a shadow and the camera can’t see your eyes properly. This, my friends, is not so much of a buzzkill but rather standard procedure. You pause, reset and once again try to recreate one of the most passionately intimate moments in the history of human activity. This is what it’s really like to film a sex scene. No, it’s not as hot as it looks on TV.
We’ve all wondered what it’s like. We’ve done the squinty eyed head tilt to try and get a proper look at what’s really going on. And though what we see is often steamy enough to ruin Saturday night telly with your parents, the reality of putting something like that together is actually pretty clinical.
"Oh it is," actress Rebekah Wainwright insists. She's worked on a variety of TV programmes over the last 10 years, so obviously I quizzed her on what it was like to pretend to have sex as part of her job. "Yeah it’s a weird thing because you’re intimate with somebody and you’re creating this passion and then you’ve got all these people… it’s quite funny I guess, because the crew and the director are looking at it in a different way. They’re looking at the angles, the light, how your hair is falling, and how much of your body we can see, or are allowed to see."
Chatting over Skype, Wainwright tells me that her first sexy scene was for The Tudors (the BBC Two show with Jonathan Rhys Meyers from Bend It Like Beckham), which was the first programme she booked after finishing drama school. "That one was a weird one. It was quite a sexy show to put it mildly," she laughs. "I was sort of thrown in the deep end. My first scene was with my co-star Henry Cavill and it was basically a scene where I was literally getting into bed beside him. It wasn’t even a big crazy passionate sex scene. It was leading to that, but that wasn’t going to be shown."
I'm always conflicted. Is it gratuitous nudity or a sex scene for the sake of it?
"They closed the set and got a skeleton crew present, but it’s still a substantial number of people, you know? I had to whip off my dress, put on another dress, arse out for all to see. At the time I was quite young, I was about 21 or something," she adds. It must've been a weird feeling. Wainwright explains that self-consciousness sets in, of course, when you realise that once it's filmed it'll be out in the world forever, but on the other side of that concern, it's just a component of a wider story. Real life often involves sex in some respect, so it's no surprise that we see so much of it in entertainment. That said, there's always a balance to be held between a sex scene with a purpose, and a sex scene because one of the producers fancied throwing a boob shot in there. "I'm always conflicted," Wainwright adds. She has to consider: "Is it gratuitous nudity or a sex scene for the sake of it?"
But what if you're on set and you're uncomfortable with a scene, a move or how exposed you are? Sex makes us all feel a little vulnerable at the best of times, not to mention when you're trying to re-enact it in front of a load of people with cameras. So how do you deal? "That’s actually something I’ve learned over the years, that you can put your foot down," Wainwright explains. "When I was young, way back in my early 20s, I was quite sheepish and I was quite shy and I was sort of grateful for the opportunity to be there and to have these roles and whatever, it took me time to realise that I could say no if I’m not comfortable with something."
Thankfully, she tells me that directors have always been very aware, understanding and accommodating in her experience, however it can't help but feel like murky territory in the context of #MeToo and the troubling conversation around Hollywood at the moment. "There are a lot of grey areas within the industry, that’s for sure, and there’s a lot of shit going on that isn’t really talked about."
"When I started on The Tudors for example, before I got the part that I got they had offered me another role. It was quite literally the part of a prostitute. I think it was recurring from what I remember, but I ended up turning it down because I was like, you know what, this is my first job out of drama school, and that’s not the road that I wanna go down." Though sticking to her guns and saying no to the part worked out in her first show – she was instead considered for a bigger role that she was more comfortable with – Wainwright explains that this level of understanding isn't concurrent throughout the industry: "There was another series that I was invited to audition for and it was a similar kind of card. It was a sexy sort of part and I ended up saying no, I don’t want to go down that road, and then they wouldn’t see me again for any other part – so it can go either way I guess."
When it really comes down to it, there are practicalities to consider alongside the emotional aspect of it all, of course. To be explicitly clear, despite how convincing it may seem, it's not actual sex. There are no real ins and outs (sorry) but smoke, mirrors and cleverly placed pouches instead. "There’s all sorts. Oh god, it’s awful when you actually think about it!" Wainwright jokes. "There was one sex scene I was doing and basically, my bum was exposed. Costume came into my dressing room and put a flesh coloured thong on me. They then came at me with the scissors and cut the back of the thong, so there was literally just this triangle [on the front] which they then Sellotaped to my skin – there was nothing glamorous at all about it. And then the male had to eventually put a sock on his dick. So I’m there with half a thong stuck on me and he’s got a sock on his cock."
No, it doesn't sound very secure and yes, in that scene, Wainwright remembers that both of their little covers fell off. "They're not going to last [when you're being physical]. It's one of those things, then you've just got to be like 'Fuck it, here we are, it's a bizarre situation'; just try and laugh it off really."
Some things aren't as easy to be discreet about. Like periods, for example. How on earth do you spend a day performing a sex scene wearing nothing but a triangle of material when you're on your period? "Oh girl, this is the thing that men don’t understand and this is where it gets brutal," Wainwright tells me. Sadly, I'm not remotely surprised. "There was one job I was doing, I literally took tablets to delay my period because you just can’t. You’re not going to have time to run to the toilet and whatever, you can’t hold up a day's filming. So, I’ve done that in the past and gotten a prescription to delay my period for a few weeks."
Orienting your period around an almost-nude TV shoot is far from ideal and another step of admin that none of us would readily anticipate as just "one of those things" you have to think about as an actress. So all things considered – the anticipation, the awkwardness, the pressure, the hilarity and the straight-up vulnerability that comes with creating realistic-looking sex for screen – can you ever really get used to whipping your clothes off for an intimate session in front of the camera?
"I kind of am more comfortable with it now because at the end of the day we are telling stories. I mean, it obviously depends on the script – if it's just tits out for the sake of it I’m like 'Meh, does that really need to be… could I wear a bra instead maybe?' But I guess the older you get, maybe more accustomed to it and it doesn’t feel like such a big deal. But it's always going to be a big deal at the time when you’re actually there." Just like when you're having sex in real life, I suggest. "Yeah you’re always conscious of your own angles, am I right?"