Gemma Whelan as Yara Greyjoy on 'Game of Thrones'

Gemma Whelan Talks Filming Without an Intimacy Coordinator on Game of Thrones

Whelan, who played Yara Greyjoy, described shooting sex scenes as a "frenzied mess."

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English actor Gemma Whelan has long been a British television mainstay, but she is still best known for her role as fierce warrior Yara Greyjoy on Game of Thrones. The massively successful HBO saga, which dominated pop culture of the 2010s, made celebrities of many of its actors. But the series has always been criticized for its gratuitous use of sex, nudity, and sexual assault. Game of Thrones was wrapping up just as the Me Too movement gained steam, which led to the inclusion of intimacy coordinators on set.

An intimacy coordinator’s role is not only to choreograph a sex scene, but to act as an advocate for the actors in the scene and to ensure that consent is always in place. Their job is to mediate between the actors and the director, so that no one feels exploited or pressured into a scene.

Whelan, who had several sex scenes in the series, described filming without an intimacy coordinator in a new interview with The Guardian.

She said, “They used to just say, ‘When we shout action, go for it!’, and it could be a sort of frenzied mess. But between the actors there was always an instinct to check in with each other. There was a scene in a brothel with a woman and she was so exposed that we talked together about where the camera would be and what she was happy with. A director might say, ‘Bit of boob biting, then slap her bum and go!’, but I’d always talk it through with the other actor.”

She continued, discussing her scene with Alfie Allen, who played her brother Theon Greyjoy, “Alfie was very much, ‘Is this OK? How are we going to make this work?’ With intimacy directors, it’s choreography – you move there, I move there, and permission and consent is given before you start. It is a step in the right direction.”

Whelan’s description fits a pattern on the set of Game of Thrones that saw many actors cajoled into nudity with little or no direction. Tamzin Merchant, who was originally cast as Daenerys Targaryen, described filming the pilot, saying, “It was an affirmation about listening to my instincts and following them, because I tried to back out of that situation and, during the contract process, I did back out. I was talked back into it by some persuasive people. Then I found myself naked and afraid in Morocco and riding a horse that was clearly much more excited to be there than I was.”

When Merchant left the role, Emilia Clarke was cast as Daenerys. Clarke also discussed feeling powerless and pressured in the first season of show, saying, “I’ve never been on a film set like this before. … and I’m now on a film set completely naked with all of these people, and I don’t know what I’m meant to do, and I don’t know what’s expected of me, and I don’t know what you want, and I don’t know what I want. … Regardless of there being nudity or not, I would have spent that first season thinking I’m not worthy of requiring anything. I’m not worthy of needing anything at all.”

Clarke added, “I was so desperate to be the most professional actor I could be that I’d be like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ for anything they threw at me. I’ll just cry about it in the bathroom later, whatever, you won’t know.”

And this kind of pressure wasn’t solely on the actresses. In James Hibberd’s oral history Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon: Game of Thrones and the Official Untold Story of the Epic Series, he interviews Jason Momoa, who said he was pressured to remove his intimacy pouch (which covers an actor’s genitals during nude scenes) by showrunners D. B. Weiss and David Benioff.

Momoa said, “David had been like, ‘Momoa, just take it off!’ You know, giving me s***. ‘Sacrifice! Do it for your art!’ I’m just like, ‘F*** you, bro. My wife would be pissed. That’s for one lady only, man.'” Momoa added, “So afterward I ripped the thing off and kept it in my hand and gave him a big hug and a handshake and was like, ‘Hey, now you have a little bit of me on you, buddy.'”

Thankfully, intimacy coordinators are quickly becoming the norm on sets, so that actors will feel safer in the future.

(via The Guardian, image: HBO)

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Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.