Unshakable sexual chemistry was at the heart of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People; intellectual high-school seniors Connell and Marianne begin secretly sleeping together and later continue their near-cosmic connection at Trinity College in Dublin. “He seemed to fit perfectly inside her,” Rooney writes in an early page.
That particular line didn’t make it into Hulu’s 12-episode adaptation, which debuted this week and is already sparking mid-quarantine thirst on Twitter—but it’s implicit from the show’s breathy, sweaty, highly vulnerable sex scenes. There is stunning, rare honesty to the sex on Normal People that is seldom seen on television—from guttural moans to laughter when Connell (Paul Mescal) struggles to take off Marianne’s (Daisy Edgar-Jones) too-tight bra; pauses to introduce condoms and occasional full-frontal, artfully lit nudity.
It was never a question for Lenny Abrahamson, who directed Normal People along with Hettie Macdonald, that in order to truly capture the novel, the onscreen sex would have to feel intensely realistic. “You can’t suddenly become coy and prim about the human body,” Abrahamson told Vogue. “You need it to feel like when they went from talking into making love, that the conversation hadn’t ended.”
But executing that erotic vision and navigating nudity with two young actors (Edgar-Jones is 21 and Mescal is 24) in their first major roles in a much-anticipated adaptation—and in an industry scarred by serial predators like Harvey Weinstein—meant Abrahamson approached sex scenes with a meticulous level of care. Moments like Marianne losing her virginity to Connell in his cramped bedroom or the couple fervently reuniting in her Dublin apartment may look completely natural, but were discussed and planned at length by Abrahamson, Edgar-Jones, Mescal, and intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien to ensure the actors were comfortable and consenting.
“If you go back a decade or more, it was all about the contract,” Abrahamson said of past nudity clauses established upfront, locking actors (often actresses) in before filming even started. But with the dawn of #MeToo exposing the sexual abuse and harassment endemic to Hollywood, Normal People is part of pioneering a new way to treat the sex scene.
“A person has to be calm when it comes to this sort of material, otherwise it will backfire on everybody,” Abrahamson said. “The only way to go into it is to create the environment where people can talk and come to an agreement that feels right for everybody. There’s no way of guaranteeing it in advance by a set of contracts. That stuff that can’t work anymore.”
For the sex scenes on Normal People, Abrahamson abided by an entirely new set of rules. To avoid gratuitous onscreen sex, he challenged himself: “to make sure that every time there’s a sex scene or we’re working with nudity, it’s there for a reason.” After establishing that the show’s intimate scenes were as integral to the characters’ on-and-off love story as any other, the director, actors, and O’Brien would have a frank talk: “What does the sex look like in this scene? What’s it telling us? Is it slow and gentle? Is it intense and immediate? Is it connected or disconnected?” Abrahamson recalled. “Let’s talk about when climax happens.”
O’Brien, a dancer and movement teacher, brought a discerning eye toward reality. “I hate it when there’s intercourse and there’s never been a moment of penetration,” she told Vogue of typically contrived onscreen sex. Likewise, “When’s the moment of withdrawal?” (O’Brien urged the crew against cute nicknames for genitalia, using instead the proper “penis” and “vagina.”)
With input from the actors, Abrahamson and O’Brien choreographed the onscreen sex practically down to the thrust, and rehearsed with the actors clothed, encouraging them to establish personal boundaries. “We’d agree on touch, so Paul and I were clear,” Edgar-Jones told Vogue. The result was no “fear of overstepping boundaries, as we knew exactly what the other was comfortable with.”
O’Brien, who has also served as intimacy coordinator on shows including Netflix’s Sex Education, Watchmen, and Gentleman Jack, says it’s all part of an industry shift. “We’re inviting a positive ‘no,’” she added of actors’ consent. “Where is your ‘yes’? Where is your ‘no?’” (“Maybe,” she notes, counts as a “no”—as there can be no room for ambiguity.) After #MeToo and Time’s Up, she said, “my phone hasn’t stopped ringing.”
Abrahamson admits he was initially skeptical about the production hiring O’Brien, worried she could interfere with his relationship with Edgar-Jones and Mescal. But the director quickly realized that the presence of an intimacy coordinator protects not only the actors, but the filmmakers too.
“I would always worry that if I’m interested in doing something and if the actor wasn’t comfortable with it, maybe they would feel like they wouldn’t want to disappoint me and therefore they might say, ‘Sure, let’s do it,’” Abrahamson said. (At times, he wouldn’t bother to make the ask, not wanting to put the actor in a difficult position.) But an intimacy coordinator, he said, takes that lingering worry “out of the equation, because it is so focused on rooting out anything that the actor doesn’t feel comfortable with and encouraging them not to do it.”
Abrahamson was so attentive to the potentially vulnerable dynamic of directing young actors engaging in nudity and vivid sex scenes, that he all but gave Edgar-Jones and Mescal final-cut privileges. “We had a thing where they had the right to see everything we shot at any point. They also had the right to watch the show before it gets broadcast,” he said. “I can tell you if there was anything that they didn’t want to be in it, I would have taken it out.”
The irony may be that Normal People’s serious and structured approach to sex allowed the actors to be “more natural and free,” Edgar-Jones said.
With so much trust established among the cast and crew, Abrahamson said the laughter began to flow on set. Halfway through one of the first sex scenes he shot, “various legs were being rearranged...and I’m talking about, ‘Maybe we need another few thrusts before climax,’” Abrahamson recalled. After a long silence, he jokingly adopted the voice of one of his children, saying something like, “‘So, Daddy, what did you do at work today?’”
Warnings abound on Twitter—that you should not watch Normal People, in all of its sensual glory, with your parents. Abrahamson’s kids are too young now, but he says he’s looking forward to sharing pivotal scenes—like Connell telling Marianne it’s okay to stop if sex hurts—some day: “I’ll be really proud to show it to them when they’re a little bit older.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue