Behind Closed Sets: Michala Banas on the art of intimacy coordination

What really goes into those steamy scenes.
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When watching a steamy scene onscreen, it’s easy to forget there’s a whole process behind the creation of that moment. 

While it didn’t used to be the case, these days there’s often a person in charge of making intimate scenes convincing to the audience, while also making sure the actors are comfortable.

Michala Banas is one of those who has found herself taking on the buzzworthy role, but it’s something she fell into.

“[I was an actor from a young age] and spent my career just navigating intimacy on my own, or with some wonderful directors and then some not so well-equipped directors,” she tells WHO.

Michala Banas headshot
Michala Banas (Credit: Bree Bain)

“Usually, it had been left up to me and the other actor, and we just figured it out somehow. Fortunately, I never had any ‘very’ traumatic experiences, but I certainly had very uncomfortable, awkward experiences as an actor.”

After doing some workshops with Ita O’Brien, a pioneer in the field, Michala’s curiosity turned to advocacy.

“[I] was sort of blown away that this had never existed until now. I can’t believe [I spent] my career unsupported in this way, and now this support exists. And that’s brilliant,” she says.

After telling  her union 
how Australia was in need of people with the relevant skills to help on sets, she was recommended 
by O’Brien herself to travel to the UK 
and train as an intimacy coordinator.

“The way I describe it is it’s like a stunt 
or fight coordinator. If you’re doing a stage production where there’s a sword fight, you don’t just give the actors a sword each 
and go figure it out on the day,” Michala explains. “There’s choreography, there’s conversation. You check if anyone has any injuries before you start even thinking about [it].

Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal in Foe
Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal as a married couple in Foe (Credit: ALAMY)

“The primary point of interest for this role is safety, consent and comfortability 
for everyone.”

While the importance of the role is 
more evident than ever, it isn’t compulsory on sets yet.

“What I’m finding now is most productions, both stage and screen, if there’s intimate content, they will engage 
an intimacy coordinator if they can,” 
Michala says. “Sometimes there’s a little 
bit of box ticking going on so they can say they had someone [but] don’t actually want to engage with it in the way that they should. But for the most part, it’s being very much embraced. And I’m hoping very much like the stunt and fight industry, that this will become sort of compulsory in terms of safety and protocol.”

But it’s not just about sex scenes, contrary to what people may believe – onscreen intimacy takes many forms.

“I think people [think it’s] sex scenes 
and nudity, and it is. But it’s also things like childbirth, which is a very vulnerable sort of thing to have to simulate,” Michala says. “[Or] medical examinations, parent-child relationships… If you’ve got an actor bathing a toddler, that’s not their own child, things like that. So it actually goes outside of what people might first think of when they think of intimacy. It’s [any] kind of intimate touch or contact.”

In another example, Michala recalls 
working on a horror film with a child actor to ensure they felt comfortable and not scared, for real, during filming.

Paul Mescal kissing Saoirse Ronan on the shoulder in Foe
Banas got to work on the physical relationship between the actors in Foe (Credit: ALAMY)

Of course, actors have their boundaries, and these kinds of scenes can be very vulnerable. An important part of any intimate scene is the use of “modesty garments” by the actors involved and the intimacy coordinator’s job is to make sure boundaries are honoured – and that can lead to a creative approach.

“I did a kissing scene where two actors didn’t want to kiss on the mouth,” Michala tells WHO. “We just have to find another way. And so we kissed on the cheek, neck, hands. And it was actually really, really gorgeous and made the scene better.”

Michala also worked on Garth Davis’ film Foe with Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal, a project she became immersed in.

“[Davis] gave me three days to work 
with Paul and Saoirse and him to find their characters’ physical relationship in their marriage. That’s the kind of work I like to do,” she explains. “It’s a wonderful onscreen relationship that speaks to seven years of marriage, because Garth gave me that time with them.”

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