'Swarm' Intimacy Coordinator Talks Chloë Bailey and Sex Scenes: 'We're Not Making Porn'

Sasha Smith addresses the controversy behind Chloë Bailey and Damson Idris' 'Swarm' sex scene and shares why those scenes matter.

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One of the earliest sex scenes I remember watching was in Titanic when Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) sneak into a car that’s being transported inside the giant ship and share their first intimate moment together. While the scene is not at all graphic, and watching those moments with your parents is always awkward, the image of Winslet’s hand wiping down the foggy car window was seared into my mind forever. 

Viewers had a similar experience while watching Donald Glover and Janine Nabers’ hit series Swarm. As captivating as the entire Prime Video series was, there was one sex scene in the first episode that fans simply couldn’t stop talking about. The pilot episode, “Stung,” introduces Marissa, played by Chloë Bailey, and her boyfriend Khalid, played by Damson Idris. Marissa lives with her foster sister, Dre (Dominique Fishback), a peculiar girl who is obsessed with a Beyoncé-like pop star and has an unhealthy attachment to Marissa. At one point in the episode, Dre stands in the hallway watching and listening to the couple having sex. 

Twitter: @NoShade

The actual scene lasted less than a minute, but it seemed so realistic that it sparked a conversation on social media. People slut-shamed and questioned Bailey’s artistic choices for doing the scene; they wondered whether or not the actors were actually nude, and some even speculated if the actors actually had sex on camera. Swarm’s intimacy coordinator Sasha Smith tells Complex that she takes that as a compliment. After all, her job is to make the actors feel as comfortable as possible on set with the proper tools (including adding a deflated bouncy ball between them as a barrier) so they could deliver a believable and credible performance that blurs the lines between real versus fake. 

“We are at work. We are not filming pornography, even though there is nothing wrong with that; it's just not the job that those actors were brought in to do. It was silly,” Smith tells Complex about the scene backlash. “One person on Twitter said that they evaluated it for 45 minutes and said they were certain that there were no barriers in between them, which just means that we placed the actors in the right position with the camera at the right angle.”

This controversy came about in the midst of a larger debate that has been taking place in the film and TV industry and among fans about whether or not sex scenes are necessary. While some believe they should be included as sex is a natural part of life, others believe they serve no purpose in pushing a story forward. Most recently, Sam Levinson and HBO are facing criticism for the amount of gratuitous sex scenes and sexual tones in their new show The Idol. (The first episode of the series even includes a scene where the intimacy coordinator gets thrown and locked inside a bathroom during a photoshoot.)

When asked about the topic previously, famed director Quentin Tarantino said sex is not part of his vision of cinema, even if he's known for his extremely violent and graphic filmmaking. “The truth is that, in real life, it’s a pain to shoot sex scenes, everyone is very tense. And if it was already a bit problematic to do it before, now it is even more so,” he told newspaper Diari ARA. "If there had ever been a sex scene that was essential to the story, I would have, but so far it hasn’t been necessary."

While Smith respects his opinion, as a professional, she disagrees with his statement. “I do believe that we can make pieces of art without it, obviously, but I do think that for certain stories it is necessary,” she says. “Quentin Tarantino's a fantastic director and really has honed in on his style of filmmaking. No one else is doing it like him. But, at the same time, that doesn't mean anyone else's work is any less valuable.”

Smith hopped on a call with Complex to break down the behind-the-scenes prep work for the Chloë and Damson sex scene, the one-sided and sexist reactions it brought out of fans, and she shares some of the misconceptions of what goes into being an intimacy coordinator on a movie and TV set.

For those who don't know, can you explain what exactly an intimacy coordinator's job is and what the job entails while you're on set?
My job, first and foremost, is just to be an advocate for the actors in vulnerable scenes featuring intimacy. My process starts when I go through the script; I pull out all of the intimate moments that I can clock, or that I read in the script, I put them into my Excel spreadsheet, and then we have a production meeting from there. That's where the director, DP (director of photography), wardrobe, all of us make sure that we're on the same page and we clarify what the story is that we're telling. That's the most important thing: Every action that we choreograph eventually is rooted to the story. That meeting is crucial so that I know what to communicate to the actors.

Once we have that meeting, I take all of that information back to the actors and ask them, essentially, "Does this sound good to you? Are you comfortable with this? This is all the information I can give to you right now." That takes away that anxiety of not knowing what's going to happen once you get to set so there are no surprises—surprises are where we can get into trouble a little bit, so just clarifying as much as I can.

I give them a lot of detail. Depending on their boundaries and their comfortability on what I've told them from that production meeting, I'll go back to production if we have to have new options that hold the boundaries and the comfortability of our actors. If we need to have a rehearsal, we have a rehearsal for our more involved scenes, and if not, we'll get to the shoot day, and then we'll have a private rehearsal there, set the movements. From there, it's a go, and then we shoot it.

Can you talk to me a little bit about working on Swarm and what it was like to work with both Damson and Chloë on putting the scene together?
Yeah, absolutely. My role was so brief, and I really was in on just those couple of days that we did intimacy, but I was doing prep work beforehand and emailing with [Chloë and Damson], making sure that they felt comfortable with everything. I even had a full phone conversation with Chloë because it was her first-ever scene, and, naturally, there were going to be nerves, there were questions, just wanting to know what set life is like, and they were both so lovely, so professional and truly, so funny.

The entire time we were on set, you could tell that they were comfortable with one another and making jokes, which were appropriate, of course, but taking care of each other and making light of the day's work since it's not your typical day at the office. But even still, there was no actual situation. There was nothing out of the ordinary for me in my day job as an intimacy coordinator. Then, once it hit the air, or hit the TV, it was taken a little out of context. I think it's just this attachment we have to celebrities right now and that we feel a bit entitled to all their waking moments. But, to me, it was just a regular day on set with two incredibly lovely people.

Chloë mentioned there were tools that were put in place, like a bouncy ball was in between them, and things like that. How do you figure out what tools to use?
Yeah. It could be a number of things, but it's typically usually either a Hibue or a Shibue, which is terribly gendered, and those are essentially just adhesive underwear that doesn't have a line across the hip, so we can fake that there's a clean hip line, which gives the illusion of nudity. Then we always have barriers because, at the end of the day, people are at work, these are their colleagues.

I usually carry a Pilates ball and/or a piece of yoga mat material that's cut to the shape of the inner lining of an undergarment, and then I put those in place to absorb any motion between the actors. That's the barrier, and then we have that adhesive underwear, or they have nude shorts or something on the bottom that gives us the illusion of nudity. The bouncy ball itself can be inflated or deflated as much as we need it, but it's still a thick, thick piece of plastic between our two actors.

For someone like Chloë, this was her first sex scene—
Her very first scene, yeah, her very first sex scene, so we made sure that we took a lot of extra care to make sure she felt comfortable and safe.

Chloë became the center of attention in this situation, and people said this was not good for her image, but people didn't really talk about Damson in that same regard. Is that something you take into consideration, how women might be viewed differently when they do sex scenes as opposed to male actors?
It is something I consider, and it's a conversation that, within the context of whatever the script is asking for, I will flag, "This may be perceived a certain way," or, "Maybe it might be a little bit clearer for the story if we do this," so that it's not just left into the hands of speculation or biases of people, the audience. You hope they can just sit down and connect to the piece of art that's being put in front of them and listen to or observe the story, connect to the story that's being told. 

They always say that the subtext of what we're not saying lives in our bodies, and that's why I believe intimate scenes are so important as opposed to them just being gratuitous or not needed or not necessary. They're still communicating. It's a human, natural thing that people have sex, and to take that out of storytelling would be doing us all a disservice.

There has been a conversation online of movie fans saying sex scenes are unnecessary or some think they don’t add anything to the plot. As an intimacy coordinator, what do you think about that whole debate?
Yeah, I guess I would challenge people to, rather than saying that they're not needed, ask, "Why would they be?" and explore that a bit more, because I have yet to come across a script where I felt that something was unnecessary. It's also so many writers and so many directors, and so many people just in general, are involved in filmmaking and making TV, that there are so many conversations, that for something to get all the way to a streaming service or to the theaters, and it just be frivolous and unnecessary is a rarity.

We're really fleshing out details and really honing in on telling whatever story we're trying to tell. I think rather than just reductively saying, "I don't need this, I don't want to see that," I think question it. You don't have to be the biggest fan of this, but understand why it might be important to the heart, to the story itself. I think approaching anything from curiosity is just the way to live. It keeps us from judgment and from shame.

It was so interesting to see Quentin Tarantino say that sex is not part of his vision of cinema. When you hear a director like him who uses other forms of things that are graphic and unneeded in film, as an expert in what you do, how does that make you feel?
More so, I would say we all are entitled to our opinions and what our strengths are and what we're comfortable with and what we're not comfortable with, and if that's something that a director doesn't want to explore for their story, that's fine. I do believe that we can make pieces of art without it, obviously, but I do think that for certain stories it is necessary.

Just because something isn't an explicit sex scene does not mean that it's not sensual in nature and elicits a response that would be considered intimate. That's just a comfortability thing when it comes down to it, and knowing your own expertise. Quentin Tarantino's a fantastic director and really has honed in on his style of filmmaking. No one else is doing it like him. But, at the same time, that doesn't mean anyone else's work is any less valuable.

Twitter: @DaricCott

Another thing that was so interesting to me with the Swarm sex scene was that people were questioning if it was real, if they were really having sex.
That, I take as a compliment. I'm like, "Okay, job well done," if that's the conversation we're having, as long as it's respectful and the actors aren't harmed by that, but it's so silly. We are at work. We are not filming pornography, even though there is nothing wrong with that, it's just not the job that those actors were brought in to do. It was silly. One person on Twitter said that they evaluated it for 45 minutes and said they were certain that there were no barriers in between them, which just means that we placed the actors in the right position with the camera at the right angle so that we didn't catch it, and everything else looked realistic.

That bouncy ball deserves an Emmy.
Thank you. Well, our whole job is to make sure that you don't see the strings unless we want you to. For sure. That's the magic of filmmaking.

Twitter: @michaelcollado

Just to even have someone ask that kind of question, something about the making of TV or movies that we were all very aware of before seems to have completely missed this new generation.
It really has, and I don't know where the disconnect happened. I wonder if it has to do with people not going to see live theater as much or practicing in the arts as much because they've been taken out of so many schools. It creates a larger myth around how this medium is created, that it's more realistic as opposed to just a multiplicity of skills on display.

What would you say is the biggest misconception people have about your role and what you do?
That I'm going to come in and disrupt everyone's workflow, that I'm going to stifle impulses and be some sort of PC police, political correctness police, when, in reality, my whole job is just to center collaboration and agency. Everything is a conversation with everyone involved, I really [am] the safety net, as if they're tightrope walkers, creating the safety net in their job, which they are trained to do without harming another person.

You're there as the spokesperson for the actors.
Right. First and foremost, my job is to advocate for the actors, and then I'm a liaison between production and actors. Hopefully, I shouldn't feel like a ping pong ball and more so just a part of the collaboration, and just helping facilitate all the conversations that everyone needs to have. But the important thing about an intimacy coordinator is that I have no hiring or firing power. I'm out of any kind of power dynamic. That's where a lot of people get tripped up, where they're like, "Well, can't the director just do that?" Or, "Can't the actors just figure it out with one another?" But what if one of the actors is a really big name and the other actor is brand-new?

There's a power dynamic within those two that one of the actors may feel more compelled to say yes than the other, or an actor may feel compelled to say yes to their director with something that they're not comfortable with. Me? I have no stake in the game. My only objective is to make sure you feel safe and comfortable. That's when you can have a bit more of a candid conversation about boundaries and safety, and, again, holding that story, because I am working hand in hand with the director, with the script, with the writers, to then also enfold the actors to it rather than stifling any kind of impulse. I just want to make sure that we all are on the same page about what we can do and what we cannot do and how we're going to achieve what it is we all agreed to do.

Has there ever been a time when an actor expressed that they were uncomfortable and you had to step in and rearrange things or make things different and talk with the director to make it so that everybody felt safe?
Oh, absolutely. I think every project has some sort of conversation like that, not necessarily that it's, "I'm uncomfortable with," it's more, "Could we possibly do this instead?" or, "I need more clarification for that." That conversation is constantly going on, and as we get more context of what's happening in the scene, once we're in the space, once we know who's in the space, those conversations are still happening. But I have had situations, we've gotten into the space and something hasn't felt right and we've shifted, or once we were talking through it, maybe boundaries changed a little bit. 

I always say that it is an open-door policy on consent, but it's an ongoing thing that can evolve. The more information we have, we shift and we pivot, or rather we shift and adjust. And keeping the workflow open and having everybody's voice involved in those conversations is what helps mitigate it being this big, awkward to-do or harm happening and then having to go in afterward retroactively and shift again.

For sure. I think that open communication and having you there makes the scenes better because everybody is feeling comfortable, or as comfortable as they can be. It's really a talent.
That's a testament to actors, and hiding the strings, showing up and doing the job, but also God knows what they're bringing to set and having to leave at the door. I sent out this initial email to everyone that's always, "Nerves are welcomed. They're expected. This is not your typical day at the office, but as long as we give each other grace, we move carefully and thoughtfully, it's typically not an issue."

The last time I remember a sex scene making this much of a splash on social media was Lawrence’s on Insecure with Tasha. 
And the Ferris wheel. We had a lot of them.

But then everybody was celebrating Lawrence. Everybody was like, "Oh, yeah, good for him, good for him." But then with Swarm, a 30-second moment in the show became its own thing.
A 30-second scene in the show that's focusing on another person in the scene. Our whole focus is supposed to be with Dominique, and I would say, visually and from watching it as an observer, it is. It's really funny that there's a shift, or there was a collective shift. That's our struggle with strong women or strong people being comfortable in their sexuality and displaying that. That's always been an issue.

I think it also has a lot to do with how people feel about Chloë. They're trying to box her into this Beyoncé protégé that is supposed to be squeaky clean, but she doesn't seem to want to be just that.
Right, which is just so shocking because I think Beyoncé has completely shed her squeaky clean attitude, or not even—I don't think she ever had one. She's been maybe a little more wholesome in her career, but I think, being a powerful, sexual being has always been a part of her whole thing, and that's empowered so many people.

Of course, someone who has been her protégé and has looked up to her forever is also going to feel the empowerment that so many of us felt growing up because of Beyoncé and then put that back out into the world too. Hopefully, there's an even larger ripple effect of just people feeling empowered in their sexuality. I feel like, if more people were, we would not be having the conversations we are now.

Is there a particular sex scene that you've seen, somebody else's work outside of your own that you were like, "Oh, yeah, this was well done?"
Oh, my gosh. Well, for me, I think my holy grail of, "This is intimacy coordination at its finest," is Ita O'Brien's work in Normal People. It is so real. You can tell the actors feel so comfortable with one another. It's just natural, and it's permeated throughout the whole show. I just have really looked up to her and the work that she's done in the UK, but Normal People in particular, I think was really, really tremendously done.

I just watched the movie Bros, and I've never seen a gay sex scene portrayed that way.
It's tender. That's the thing. It's like now because we have intimacy coordinators, we're actually spending time to make these scenes more thoughtful. Going back to the conversation about things being necessary, there absolutely are shows where, sure, maybe it does seem a little gratuitous, I know I'm being hypocritical, I probably just put my own foot in my mouth, but I think we've moved away from that a bit. 

Now that we have intimacy coordinators, we are actually fleshing out these moments with as much thought and detail as with anything else we would before, and we're allowing the conversations for, "Oh, we don't just want it to just look like this. We want it to be tender. This is the story of these two people connecting in this way," and I'm so happy you are picking up on the nuances of that. That's translating, and that's due to those conversations and the actors feeling comfortable with the work being presented to them.

Also, a scene like that would do a lot for the gay community being represented in a way that we really haven't seen before for them.
See, that's why sex scenes are important because it represents the things that maybe we can't talk to our friends about or the things that we need to see fleshed out in front of us to feel connected to something because it may not be in our own community or approved by those around us, or there may be some level of shame because there's a lack of understanding. The more understanding that we can bring to people's bodies, to our needs and our desires, and not be afraid of being intimate or feel shame about being intimate and needing that. Why wouldn't we want to represent everything under the sun so everyone feels taken care of as well?

I'm working on a movie right now called Good Girl, where the whole premise is a woman who is a sex worker and the difference between the performative nature of what she has to do at work and what actual intimacy means for her, and it has been so thrilling to explore that and to be able to show that and represent it and the complexities of pleasure and where that lives in people's bodies and how it's not just your typical penetrative sex, a couple of thrusts, and then a massive orgasm. It takes a little more work, a little more detail, and a little more before sex even starts. I'm really excited about it to put something out in the world that I think will help open people's eyes to the different ways that we express ourselves, and sex is one of those ways.

It's a natural thing that nobody should be shamed for or ashamed of. But Chloë handled everything like a champ. She really did.
She's Beyoncé's protégé, professional as they come. Enough is enough. Let the girls do what they want.

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