New guidelines make it safer for actors performing intimate scenes

By Jessica Tyson

Performing love scenes on camera can be uncomfortable for many actors, so new intimacy guidelines are being launched this week by the actor's union, Equity New Zealand.

Actress and equity board member Miriama McDowell says the guidelines will make performing scenes safer for actors.

The guidelines have been developed by New Zealander of the Year, actor and director Jennifer Ward-Lealand.

“They’re helping people right from the start, so right from the minute you write a script with an intimate scene in it until right through to rehearsing, performing, marketing, editing, all of the different stages people can go to,” says McDowell.

It comes after sexual harassment and abuse in the screen industry has been outed by the Me Too movement. McDowell says the movement has been “a real game-changer.”

“When women started talking about their experiences of abuse, of course, that sent waves right through the entire world but specifically within the screen industry. Stories started to come out about abusive power and that’s where this movement started, actually about making intimate scenes safe and taking that imbalance of power away and starting to see it as another integral part of our storytelling.”

In New Zealand studies show up to one in three girls will be subjected to an unwanted sexual experience by the age of 16 years. 

According to the Ministry of Justice, the likelihood of sexual violence against Māori girls and women is nearly twice as high as the general population. There are varying rates for sexual violence offences against men but large scale international prevalence studies have tended to find a figure of one in seven boys.

“So we can be sure that when we’re on a set, there are people on that set who have experienced trauma. So these guidelines help to keep us all safe when we’re working.”

McDowell says traditionally with intimate scenes, there haven’t been specific guidelines written in scripts about what actors should physically do or perform during an intimate scene.

“What we’ve discovered in developing these intimacy protocols is that it doesn’t need to be that way. It should be just as specific and crafted as a stunt scene.”

McDowell redirected the newest season of the bilingual Māori Television drama Ahikāroa and had Jennifer Ward-Lealand come in to help as an intimacy coordinator.

One scene in the script that Ward-Lealand helped with was when two actresses were required to jump on a bed with one male actor.

“She goes away and she breaks that down and she comes back with her three actors and goes 'This is what it could look like' and to the most minute detail like ‘Her right-hand caresses his shoulder and trails over his tā moko and then down and into the top of his pants’ rather than a blurry kissing scene.”

McDowell says the guidelines are not compulsory.

“But I feel like the industry is changing. People want to have a pathway. They don’t want to compromise actors. They don’t want to make people feel small so this is a place to go to figure out the best way to do it.”