Sex Education’s intimacy director explains her very important role on set

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Hannah Keegan
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“I believe there is always another way to do a scene where no one is vulnerable, so I tell them their ‘no’ is a gift.”

Ita O’Brien is the intimacy director on the Netflix show Sex Education. She lives in London with her partner.

My alarm goes off…

As early as 4am, depending on what time I’m due on set. I check my phone for any messages that have come in overnight. Then, I’ll do half an hour of yoga and pilates. For breakfast, I make an apple, orange, carrot and ginger juice and a flask of tea and grab a banana to take with me. On set days, I wear jogging bottoms and a T-shirt. I leave the house at 8am.

I’m responsible for…

Putting in place clear guidelines for intimacy related to sex and nudity in TV, film and theatre. I’m there to ensure all the actors feel safe, supported and confident.

I got the job…

By developing industry guidelines for shooting intimate scenes. I started out as a musical theatre dancer and actor, before I decided to do an MA in movement direction at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I worked as a movement teacher at drama schools and theatres for 11 years. 

During this time, I created a piece of work called Does My Sex Offend You? where I looked at how I kept my actors safe during intimate scenes; this led to drawing up guidelines which I presented to the UK Time’s Up committee. It was then endorsed by the Women In Film And Television organisation. Not long after, the Sex Education producers asked me to come on board.

Ita was on set throughout the filming of Netflix series Sex Education

My typical day…

Starts with rehearsing the day’s scenes. The maximum number I’ll work on per day is four, and it’s really important to rehearse. After a discussion with the actors about how their character would behave, I’ll choreograph the scene. We then agree on all the physicality involved, run through it and make sure the director is happy. 

This is their opportunity to make sure the actors are comfortable and I encourage them to speak up if they’re not. I worked on a scene recently where the actors had to spit at each other and they weren’t happy to do it. In that case, I’ll discuss it with the director on their behalf. I believe there is always another way to do a scene where no one is vulnerable, so I tell them their ‘no’ is a gift. 

Previously, actors have been afraid to say no but the #MeToo movement has helped change that. I’ll usually just grab some fish and veg from catering for lunch. In the afternoon the actors’ energy will change as people start to get tired, so I’m extra-focused on how they’re feeling and if they need a break. Before I leave, I check that the actors are still feeling OK and if they’d like to review footage. Sometimes I can finish all my scenes and be out by 1pm, other times it will be 12.30am.

Actors rehearse movements with Ita and agree on physicality involved in a scene

My most memorable moment…

Is every time the guidelines I’ve set out are endorsed. It’s a victory.

The worst part of my job…

Is when production don’t understand what’s required to make sure the guidelines work, whether that’s a female-only cast during certain scenes or extra rehearsal time.

The best part of my job…

Is when an actor says, “Thank you, I felt safe because you were there.”

After work…

My partner usually cooks, something like fish pie or baked potato. I’m so exhausted I pass out on the sofa most nights. If I do stay awake, we’ll watch Catastrophe or Vikings. I spend some time going through emails before bed and I send a report to the production team explaining everything that happened that day. I’m asleep between midnight and 1am.

Sex Education is available on Netflix now

Photography: Holly Mcglynn


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Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the features writer at Stylist magazine.

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