The not so steamy secrets of sex on set

Movies are becoming increasingly graphic in their depiction of sex. For actors, it means some very awkward days at the office

The Fifty Shades juggernaut rolled into town recently amid a storm of white-hot hype, only to be met with stinging criticism. Chief among the gripes of an audience chomping at the bit for flesh and eye-popping rutting was that there wasn't nearly enough 'actual' sex in the film.

We’ve come a long way, seemingly, since the time when full-frontal nudity, or unsimulated sex acts for that matter, were considered truly seismic. Far from being shocked, some audiences expect it now, as a matter of course.

But what is it like to be an actor handed the task of bringing these scenes to life for an increasingly exacting audience? As job specs go, it’s a curious one: in making sex scenes, actors need to create the illusion of intimacy, lust or attraction with a stranger (or worse, a friend), all while being mindful of a list of technical and choreographic specifications. Managing this high-wire feat isn’t straightforward.

Kelly Campbell, an actor who trained originally at the Central School of Music & Drama in London, has a CV that runs the proverbial gamut from stage to screen. Sex scenes have come as part of the territory, she says.


“Film-making is a construction of reality that is very mechanical and very choreographed. It is made to look like the camera has chanced upon an intimate moment between two people, but the reality of constructing it couldn’t be further from that.”

Campbell recalls a sex scene she filmed with Domhnall Gleeson in Tom Hall's film, Sensation: "Domhnall and I had our jeans on during that scene, while his girlfriend and my husband sat in the room next to us during filming," she says.

Certainly, sex scenes require a level of vulnerability and trust (in both co-star and crew), yet in Campbell’s experience, other aspects of acting can be much more emotionally demanding.

“There are more intimate things you do beyond sex, like telling the truth in your work and being honest in your performance,” she reveals. “But in some ways, the less close you are to [the other actor in the scene], the more you can replicate a bond. You know you’re ‘safe’ and there’s no confusion between this and real life.”

When she was cast in Conor Horgan's One Hundred Mornings, Campbell hadn't met her co-star Ciaran McMenamin before being cast. The pair filmed a sex scene where their characters, mired in a sort of post-apocalyptic purgatory, had a soulless, empty sexual encounter in a forest.

“When it came to the choreography of the sex scene, Conor took care of all that,” she says. “He decides how he wants to frame it and how we will move, and we discussed where it might work. There was a reduced crew, as there usually is for these scenes. Crew are really respectful in this situation.”

As the Fifty Shades behemoth played out in cinemas, actor Moe Dunford's Irish feature film debut was creating its own quiet fire down the hallway. Patrick's Day charted the emotional, but ultimately doomed love affair between Patrick (Dunford), a young man with schizophrenia, and the suicidal Karen (Catherine Walker).

Creating an intimacy and chemistry between the two characters was paramount, and integral to the film’s heft. Yet it was Dunford’s first foray into previously unchartered territory.

“When I read the script, my first thinking was, ‘if I get this role, I’ll have to do those scenes’,” he says. “I was curious as to how Terry [McMahon, the film’s director] would approach them.”

In one memorable scene, Patrick loses his virginity to Karen, and as cinematic moments go, it’s an intense and breathtaking one. “That’s as much [cinematographer] Michael Lavelle’s work as much as mine,” says Dunford. “Terry’s direction to me was, ‘imagine the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen in your life’, and to be fair I didn’t have to look much further than Catherine.

“To shoot the scene though, Michael had to get into my clothes and hold this huge camera. He was bending backwards onto the bed and I was sitting behind him in my underpants holding him up. In another scene where Karen and I are lying down naked, so much of that was about getting our bodies in the right position, or having to move our faces a few inches to the left or whatever.”

Dunford's Patrick's Day co-star Kerry Fox – who played his mother Maura in the film – appeared in the 2001 British film Intimacy, directed by Patrice Chereau. Known for being one of the first British movies that featured unsimulated oral sex, it became a landmark production.

After Intimacy, 9 Songs was released in 2003, prompting critics to call it the "most sexually explicit mainstream film ever made". In 2012, Film Four produced Kelly+Victor, a film based on the Niall Griffiths novel about the sexual, BDSM-heavy relationship between two twenty-somethings. Though the couplings were simulated, the film was vivid, intense and explicit.

“Given that the novel is so astounding, there was a concerted will to not do it an injustice,” explains Irish actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes, who was cast as Kelly.

“The sex that features is real and raw … there is nothing in it that is sensationalised for entertainment value. The sexuality is a representation of how two people communicate their emotions. There is a blind urgency, and this could only be achieved by complete commitment to the character. Shots were not isolated and blocked out for modesty’s sake.”

Campbell-Hughes met her co-star Julian Morris several weeks before shooting. "There was a small crew," she recalls. "We shot everything in one room over a week. It was cramped, and very, very real. There wasn't much room for exhibitionist fakeness, or modesty, as we shot in long solid real-time chunks. The main choreographing was specific to the asphyxiation dynamic that Kelly and Victor focus on. Kelly strangles Victor with a sash and they have a tapping signal to indicate [when to stop]."

For all their frequency, sex scenes will always ignite interest in audiences; the more explicit, the better. Between Lars Von Trier's Nymphomania and Blue Is The Warmest Colour, the brouhaha often accompanying a movie's graphic content is the studio executive's holy grail. Little wonder, too, that the small screen is following suit and serving up some of the most eye-watering and unflinching scenes that audiences have witnessed in recent memory.

Lena Dunham's Girls has featured nudity and authentically real (read: awkward) scenarios, while Game Of Thrones is every bit as punctuated with blistering sex scenes and nudity as it is with medieval violence.

Jorie Lagerwey, lecturer at the School of English, Drama and Film at UCD, says: "There are a couple of reasons why scenes have become more graphic. Broadcasters, especially those with a paid subscription service, often resort to titillating ways to encourage people to watch the shows. One of these is sex and nudity, and people are tuning in because the nudity is so different from what we have seen before.

"Broadcasters like HBO don't have to follow decency regulations because they are subscription services. Then, everyone else sort of copycats them, and the originals need to keep upping their ante. These days, with shows like Girls, I think women are excited to see bodies that are more like theirs."

We're not quite at the point where on-screen sex has become a sort of visual muzak, but there has been a vaguely perceptible kick back against on-screen nudity. US show Outlanders, which stars Irish actress Catriona Balfe, marks a departure from traditional televisual sex scene fare.

One of its more notable and brave sex scenes featured – as the New York Times put it – a sex act that's "not necessarily the one you'd expect in a scene set just after World War II." Intriguingly, both Balfe and her co-star Tobias Menzies were fully clothed in the scene.

It’s likely that film and TV directors will continue to explore different, ever more colourful and innovative ways to depict on-screen sex in a bid to get their project over the line and noticed by a mass audience. In the meantime, Dunford attests that he is happy to revisit the experience of shooting a sex scene now that he has his first one in the can … albeit with one small but very important caveat.

“If the scene serves the story, I’ve no problem at all with doing them,” he says. “To do those scenes you have to allow yourself to go to a vulnerable place, and that’s a great challenge for an actor.” He pauses, and then thinks momentarily. “Of course, sometimes people just want to see a pair of bollocks”.


Tiny Furniture (Dir. Lena Dunham) 2010

Dunham has made her name on casting a cold and unforgiving light on twentysomething sex in all its uncertainty and earnestness. Her character hooks up with the object of her affection in a concrete construction pipe. It’s perfunctory and bizarre.

Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen) 2011

McQueen’s depiction of sex addict Brandon was lauded for its sensitive insight into the addiction. Still, the film was not without its uncomfortable scenes as Brandon (Michael Fassbender) moves in search of his next “high”. Which is more awkward, Brandon’s sister getting into bed and demanding a cuddle, or sex with a stranger in full view of the street below?

Coneheads (Dir. Steve Barron) 1993

Credited with bringing the "vacuum kiss" (this is a thing, apparently) into wider society, Coneheads features alien sex between Connie Conehead (Michelle Burke) and Ronnie (Chris Farley). He puts a senso-ring over Connie's conehead, in case you're wondering how that works.

Don Jon (Dir Joseph Gordon Levitt) 2013

Don (Levitt) is such a devoted fan of porn that real-life encounters with his girlfriend prove … tricky. One evening, Don decides to fire up the laptop and rekindle his love of porn, only to be caught mid-movie by his girlfriend.

American Pie (Dir. Paul Weitz) 1999

Getting caught in flagrante with an apple pie is awkward. It’s worse again to have been caught by one’s father. And it’s even worse again if one’s father wants to talk about it, to get to the root of such transgression.

Last Tango In Paris 1972 (Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)

There was something undeniably erotic about Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider's on-screen lovemaking. But then butter was somehow introduced into the mix. Doing questionable things with dairy products mid-coitus was a cinematic first.

Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life (Dir. Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam) 1983

Bringing sex education to a whole new level, John Cleese’s schoolmaster gets rather hands-on while teaching his class, going so far as to illustrate via sex with his wife. Choice tip: “You don’t have to go leaping straight for the clitoris like a bull at the gate”.