WHAT makes a good sex scene? Vanessa Coffey is the woman to ask. Her job as a TV, film and theatre intimacy coordinator means that she is often in the thick of the action, so to speak.

The lawyer-turned-actor says she “fell into” her line of work after being asked by former students (Coffey is also an acting lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) if she would cast an eye over their contracts and go on set to ensure that any agreed nudity clauses were adhered to.

Around the same time, during late 2017 and early 2018, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement began gaining momentum. As the industry underwent a long overdue shake-up in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Coffey found herself at the heart of that revolution.

It remains a timely issue. The entertainment world has been rocked again in recent weeks with allegations of sexual harassment and bullying against the actor and producer Noel Clarke. He has denied any sexual misconduct or criminal wrongdoing.

Intimacy coordinator is a role still in its infancy. The first time anyone was formally credited with this job title was when Alicia Rodis, a stunt performer and actor, was hired to work on The Deuce in 2018. The HBO series centred on the rise of the 1970s porn industry in New York City.

Coffey talks frankly about how it works. When a scene requires sexual activity or nudity, she is tasked with helping to choreograph it in much the same way as a dance or fight sequence. Her remit not only covers simulated sex scenes but all aspects of intimacy and physical proximity.

“When I go into a room, I talk with the director first to find out what they want the scene to look and feel like, whether that is on set or on stage,” says Coffey.

The Herald: Vanessa Coffey works as a TV, film and theatre intimacy coordinatorVanessa Coffey works as a TV, film and theatre intimacy coordinator

“I usually have a separate phone call with each actor to talk about their boundaries and any places they are not OK to be touched. Also, if there is nudity that is required, what their limitations are, so we are clear when we go into the rehearsal room what we can and can’t do.

“Once I am clear on all of that and also on what the director wants the scene to look like, we can have a good conversation about what the choreography of the piece should be and exactly where people’s hands should be going.

"If it is a scene with simulated sex, we will talk about things like how many thrusts we think are needed and the nature of that thrusting. Is it a quickie? Are we talking about something that is long and passionate?”

This expertise is much in demand. Coffey – who moved to Glasgow from Sydney in 2009 after winning a scholarship to study acting at the then RSAMD – has worked as an intimacy coordinator on the Sky Atlantic drama I Hate Suzie and Netflix’s teen fantasy Fate: The Winx Saga, as well as the upcoming second series of War of the Worlds for Fox.

Other recent projects include the crime series Wolfe, due to air on Sky this autumn, and Float, a young adult LGBTQ+ drama made by BBC Scotland, arriving on our screens later in the year.

Part of her job is making sure that the intent behind any unfolding action is crystal clear. “Where the scene is a sexual assault, the positioning of that is going to be very different to a female-led, very loving, sexual act,” she explains. “We need to reflect that in the choreography.

“We will talk through all of that and put it in place, making sure the actors can repeat it over and over just as they would a dance or a fight sequence. Only at that point, where they are comfortable with the physical actions, would I then ask them to put the character’s intention behind it.”

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If a scene relates to an assault, rather than a consensual encounter between the characters, this will often, says Coffey, necessitate additional conversations to establish the boundaries and assess any psychological impact on the cast members.

“Even in circumstances where we might not have a simulated sex scene and there may not be nudity, the very suggestion of the fact it is a sexual assault might be triggering for somebody,” she says.

“We need to know that and have an honest conversation because sometimes, if that is what is needed for the role, it might not be the right role for that person at this time in their life.”

There is an extra level of care required when working with a younger cast, says Coffey, some of whom might be shooting their first intimate scenes on-screen. “Young actors are very keen to say yes to things,” she says. “That is when I am on the lookout for a ‘yes’ that is really a ‘maybe’ or a ‘probably not’.”

While shooting I Hate Suzie, Coffey had to coordinate Billie Piper in what became the longest solo sex scene in TV history (lasting seven minutes and four seconds). It was a complicated sequence that at one point, quite literally, involved herding cats across the set.

Coffey is there to observe proceedings and flag any concerns should the choreography of an intimate scene not play out as discussed or if an actor is looking uncomfortable. Does she ask for filming to be stopped?

“Yes, sometimes that will happen,” she says. “I am always in the room on the closed set. Unless it is impossible for me to be in the space, for example, if we are shooting in a storeroom and there is only enough space for two people and the camera.

“Then, I am immediately outside that door so that, if somebody calls my name, I can be there instantly.

The Herald: Intimacy coordinator Vanessa Coffey. Picture: Wolf MarlohIntimacy coordinator Vanessa Coffey. Picture: Wolf Marloh

“If we are doing a simulated sex scene and there is nudity, we have modesty garments or barriers that have been put in place to fit between the actors. Sometimes those things move. The cast need to be able to call out to say: ‘This has shifted’.”

Having an intimacy coordinator maintaining a constant presence means that, if any such issues do occur, these can be swiftly dealt with.

“I work closely with the costume department making sure that the modesty garments are in place,” says Coffey. “Choreographically, we might need to change something if things keep slipping or if it is not working for some reason.

“I am usually standing next to the director, so we can have eye contact with one another. I can see whether the performers are comfortable or whether something maybe looks right on the screen whereas, in reality, I am seeing something a little bit different.

“If there is a disconnect, I will say, ‘Can we cut?’ Then I need to go in and have a quick word or give feedback between takes.”

Coffey consulted on The Panopticon for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2019. Written by Jenni Fagan, the play covers powerful themes, centring on a 15-year-old girl who has spent her life in the social work system.

When overseeing a scene depicting sexual violence, Coffey quickly realised the actors playing perpetrators equally needed her support.

“The people who were committing the sexual assault had just as much of an issue with the scene as the person on whom it was being committed,” she recalls.

“Because, of course, the actors are having to put themselves in a place where their character is doing something to somebody else that they would never consider doing in their own lives.”

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She devised an aftercare programme to address this. “When dealing with scenes of trauma, I suggest ways that people can de-role and get out of the space safely for the day,” says Coffey.

“They have activities and that might be as simple as running and touching things of a certain colour in the room, such as three things that are green. It brings you back to the space you are in rather than mentally keeping you in that traumatic territory.”

When Coffey started out as an intimacy coordinator, she did wonder if some might see her role as the “PC police”. Instead, she has found the reaction to be overwhelmingly positive. “People are recognising that this is a good thing and say, ‘I can’t believe that wasn’t a job before’.”

Vanessa Coffey is hosting an online course, Introduction to Intimacy Coordination, on May 15 and 16. To join the waiting list for this course and future events, visit rcs.ac.uk