‘Sex Education’ Cast Says Filming Sex Scenes Properly Is ‘Like a Dance’

Emma Mackey, who plays Maeve on the hit Netflix series, says intimacy coordinators made the cast feel comfortable and safe on set.
Sex Education
Emma Mackey and Asa Butterfield in "Sex Education" Season 2

Season 2 of “Sex Education,” Netflix’s charming hit serio-comedy about a teenage boy posing as a sex therapist, features fewer sex scenes than its explosive first season. In its brilliant second season, released on Netflix last week to rave reviews, relationships are tested as the world of the series expands with new characters and more depth. The new season sticks to the general pattern of Season 1, with each episode exploring a new sexual hangup or issue with compassion and positivity. Having established its bona fides as a sexy enough show about sex, the writers were free to push past the sexier side of their heartwarming story, diving deeper into the emotional perils of intimacy.

While the intimate scenes in both seasons are always done tastefully, there’s no denying that even the most PG-13 of sex scenes require utmost care and precision — especially when working with young actors. The practice of hiring intimacy coordinators has become more and more commonplace in Hollywood, and “Sex Education” had some of the best from the jump. For Season 1, the cast worked with Ita O’brien, a theatrically trained actress and intimacy coordinator who has worked on shows such as “Gentleman Jack” and “Electric Dreams.” Her assistant David Thackeray was on hand for Season 2.

“Ita [O’Brien] was the intimacy coordinator, and before we started filming we had a whole day [with a] big ‘ole conversation with producers, directors, cast, about intimacy scenes, about our fears and worries, just a general conversation, really in depth, for hours,” series star Emma Mackey told IndieWire during an in-person interview. “Then in the afternoon, we had a workshop where we physicalized it more and we did animal rhythms and mating rhythms and stuff.”

As Maeve Wiley, the sexually liberated brains behind the sex therapy operation, Mackey had some of the most explicit intimacy scenes in Season 1.

“The most important thing is physical consent,” she explained. “So it’s like a dance. We learn a dance. My scenes with Kedar [Williams-Stirling], who plays Jackson, for example — we would have Ita talk us through it, and then when we were on set we would put a dance together and we would talk about it with Ben [Taylor, the director] and we would be like, ‘Right, so we’re gonna kiss for three beats, and then you’re gonna put me against the wall, and you can touch me here, and then we’re gonna make out more and then you’ll lift me after four.’”

"Sex Education" Season 2
“Sex Education” Season 2Courtesy of Netflix

If it doesn’t sound very sexy, Mackey says that’s kind of the point. “The whole point is it demystifies sex scenes. It makes them more practical and actually more fun, because then suddenly you’re like, ‘Oh, actually this is fine,’ ’cause you’re almost making it mechanical. And the whole aim of the game is to make it look as real and truthful and messy as possible,” she said.

“Just making people feel really safe and comfortable is the most important thing,” added Asa Butterfield, who plays series lead Otis. “Establishing that conversation and knowing you can have that conversation if there’s anything you’re worried about. … Some people are naturally more confident or comfortable in those situations than others, so you’ve gotta find that balance and meet in the middle.”

Ncuti Gatwa, who plays Otis’ best friend Eric, pointed out the importance of actors feeling safe on set. “There’s not a human resources department in acting. You can’t file a complaint,” he said. “So putting these structures in place is important to help us do our job better. It’s important, because we are asked to do things that are absurd.”

In addition to feeling comfortable, Mackey said that choreographing a sex scene down to every minute movement actually freed her up to play her character more authentically.

“It separates you from your character, that’s the reason why it helps as well. ‘Cause all the noises and the things that turn your character on are different to what turns you on in your life,” she said. “So it separates you from the character. Which means you’re more free because you’re crafting a character as opposed to using something very personal. So it’s kind of like an experiment in a way — it’s quite cool.”

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