Filming sex scenes on "Game of Thrones" could be a “frenzied mess”

Gemma Whelan, aka Yara Greyjoy, spoke about how filming intimate scenes has changed since the show's ending

Published November 18, 2021 6:57PM (EST)

Gemma Whelan attends the BAFTAs at the Royal Albert Hall in February 2020 in London, England  (Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Gemma Whelan attends the BAFTAs at the Royal Albert Hall in February 2020 in London, England (Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

This story originally appeared on Winter is Coming.

In 2017, the world of Hollywood and beyond was rocked by revelations that mega-movie producer Harvey Weinstein had abused his position for years to assault and harass female coworkers and employees. It led to a reckoning in the industry, with other powerful people like Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, CBS CEO Les Moonves and Matt Lauer facing similar allegations, losing their careers or facing criminal charges.

It also led to a rethinking of the way sex scenes were performed on film and TV sets. Gemma Whelan, who played Yara Greyjoy on HBO's "Game of Thrones" — a show known for its frank sex scenes — told The Guardian about how the atmosphere had changed since then. "There's a very different choice of language now," she said. "If anyone makes an innuendo, everyone shuts down. I think, five or 10 years ago, if there was a double entendre, everyone would jump on the bandwagon and see how many laughs they could raise. I remember when an actor would have a microphone fitted, and sometimes you have to root around the waist. And, in the past, there'd be all this, 'and while you're down there, hur, hur!' But now you don't have to play along with things like that."

COVID-19 also necessitated less physical contact. "All the squishy-squishy, huggy-huggy stuff has stopped. But I don't miss it," Whelan said. "You have to be a bit more genuine now if you're saying hello. You can't hide behind a big hug. And there's no question mark over it: Do we double kiss? Do we hug? Clasp hands? No, we just say hello to each other."

The #MeToo movement also led to the rise of the intimacy coordinator, who's job it is to be an advocate for actors involved in sex scenes. Alicia Rodis, who was a stunt woman and fight choreographer before she became an intimacy coordinator on shows like HBO's "The Deuce," explained the job this way:

With intimate moments, from kissing to intense sex scenes, it's been the practice [for directors] to just say 'Whatever you're comfortable with, just go for it.' But if you're not giving someone a map or an exit or a voice, just asking actors to roll around and get off on each other, are you asking your actors to do sex work? Or tell a story with their movements?…If your set doesn't have an intimacy coordinator, at best, you might not be able to tell the story you wanted to tell. At worst, you have actors who are being physically assaulted.

The actors looked out for each other during sex scenes on "Game of Thrones"

HBO now requires intimacy coordinators on all of its shows with sex scenes. But back when Whelan was working on "Game of Thrones," that wasn't the case. "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."

Whelan is probably referring here to a scene from Season 6 when Yara and Theon (Alfie Allen) stop in a brothel in Volantis on their way to Meereen to meet Daenerys Targaryen. She and Allen had a somewhat infamous almost-sex scene themselves, where Theon attempted to get intimate with Yara before realizing she was actually his sister he hadn't seen since they were kids. "Alfie was very much, 'Is this OK? How are we going to make this work?'" Whelan remembered. "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."

Gemma Whelan: It would be "insulting" to be recognized for "Game of Thrones"

Whelan hit on some other topics, in the article, revealing that she was pregnant with her now four-year-old child Frances when filming the final season of "Game of Thrones." She's familiar with all the ways to cover up a pregnancy on film, like shooting a lot of shots from the neck up. "Yeah. It's a great way of getting loads of closeups!"

Somewhat surprisingly, Whelan says she isn't recognized on the street. "People sometimes say, 'Do I know you from the bus stop?' or, 'Were we at school?' That's it really." That might be because the scowling, armor-wearing Yara is so different from the person she is in real life. "It would be almost insulting to be recognized from 'Game of Thrones,'" she joked.

You can currently see Whelan as Sarah Collins in "The Tower," a police procedural on ITV.

By Dan Selcke

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