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Selma Blair and Sarah Michelle Gellar in "Cruel Intentions"
© Columbia
Fakin' It
Actors discuss the ins and outs of making a successful sex scene

By Cassie Carpenter
Back Stage West

To the audience, a steamy love scene can be titillating and intimate; it can intensify the story and move it along. To the actor, the reality of performing in love scenes can range from slightly embarrassing to just plain uncomfortable -- with spray-on sweat, a co-star you may have just met five minutes before, or a crowd of crew members yawning through each precisely choreographed take.

Many factors determine if a love scene is successful: chemistry, trust, a lack of self-consciousness, a great sense of humor, and the occasional fabulous body double ... or not. Back Stage West peeks into the closed set and asks three fearless actors -- none of whom has felt the need for a body double -- how they tackle love scenes.

According to the Screen Actors Guild's official nudity clause, actors should always know about the nudity involved in a union film or TV project prior to the first audition. Total nudity should never be required at union auditions, although the performer can wear pasties and a G-string. Still photography, sex acts, and the use of body doubles are not allowed without the performer's consent. The set must always be closed to all persons having no business purpose in connection with the SAG production.

"They say 'closed set' but, truthfully, there are people at the monitors, too," warns actor Hal Sparks, who has performed in numerous love scenes on Showtime's "Queer as Folk," on which he plays Michael Novotny-Bruckner. Before being cast on the series, he was best known for hosting E!'s "Talk Soup," as well as for his comedic commentary on VH1's "I Love the '70s," '80s, and '90s series. "They'll peel it down to 'central crew only,' which means between eight and 12 people, depending on the complications of shooting it. If it's a real intimate scene, it can be you, a camera operator, a boom operator, and then the director and [his or her] crew are off near the monitors. Then, ultimately, as far as who sees raw footage, you've got the editors ... . So, boiling it down, between 15 and 20 people are going to see you at your most vulnerable."

The basic rule is: The bigger the budget, the more people will remain on-set for love scenes. "They never bothered closing a set for me," actor Selma Blair says, with a laugh. "I'm not the most guarded person, so it doesn't bother me. If anyone wants to see it, go ahead. Usually I don't think they care. The crew is too busy eating a sandwich or something."

Blair's love scenes in "The Sweetest Thing" involved a banana and a man in a purple elephant costume; scenes in "Storytelling" were so graphic that writer-director Todd Solondz had trouble watching them on-set. In the 1999 film "Cruel Intentions," a girl-on-girl kiss won her an MTV Best Kiss Award. "It's so funny, because any love scene that I've done in a film is certainly an odd, intimate experience," she adds. "Of course, with 'Cruel Intentions' and 'The Sweetest Thing,' my love scenes always involved me falling out of frame or something that always ended with a hard laugh. I view them as kind of an acrobatic lesson."

Actor John Enos, who plays nightclub owner Bobby Marsino on "The Young and the Restless," knows his way around love scenes. He's also performed intimate scenes with the likes of Heather Locklear on "Melrose Place" and Kim Cattrall on "Sex and the City" (as Mr. Too-Big). "You know, every time I've done a movie or something where there's this big love scene, it ends up being the first week," notes Enos. "Bang, get right into it, and the next thing you know, you're naked with someone you don't know. It might be because a lot of people work out before the movie starts, so they're in shape for the love scenes, and that way they can eat craft services for the next five weeks. That's just an idea."

On most television productions, love scenes take between three and five hours to shoot. A love scene on a feature film can require a day or more of shooting, and it's not out of the question for people to be making coffee and serving food right next to your set. After each take, the makeup department not only does the usual touchups but it also typically sprays the actors down with a rosewater and glycerin concoction to make them appear sweaty. While women wear body stockings, G-strings, and pasties on-set, men get what is known as a "sock."

"It's a flesh-colored pouch that wraps your genitals up like a bag of leprechaun's gold," describes Sparks.

When it comes to appearing naked, many actors -- particularly those with clout -- will insist on what is called a "nudity rider," an airtight contract that expands on the SAG clause and essentially gives the artists final cut of their love scenes.

Actors who have been vocal about having nudity riders include Charlize Theron, Neve Campbell, Shannon Elizabeth, Sharon Stone, and Alyssa Milano. Many actors refuse to do any nudity: Catherine Deneuve, Andy Garcia, Julia Roberts, Scarlett Johansson, Kirsten Dunst, and Sarah Jessica Parker, to name a few.

"Some of my favorite actresses working today feel comfortable doing it, and I don't think it diminishes them," Parker has said (as quoted in The New York Daily News), "but I've never felt comfortable doing it."

In an interview with Maxim magazine, Kevin Bacon noted that he has a no-nudity clause in his contract, and as producer of "Wild Things," he technically could have sued himself. Other well-known actors are more open to nudity. Holly Hunter told Premiere, "I've never signed a nudity clause in my life. And whenever I've done nudity, I felt it was right -- I mean, we've got five senses, and sex employs all of them, so if you're expressing something about what it means to be alive in the world, how can you subtract sex from that?"

"I didn't know how you kissed onscreen," Blair admits. "You know, what is rude? I was very nervous about the tongue factor, and my policy is: If your character would do it, then you do it. But then I find out later that a lot of the best actresses would never dare use the tongue. So I'm shamed."

Directors are known for being precise about what they want onscreen, so it's not surprising to hear specific blocking instructions such as, "Put your left leg over her right thigh, then roll her over facing you onto her left hip." Sharon Stone has referred to herself and Michael Douglas as "the horizontal Fred and Ginger of the '90s," because of how choreographed their blocking was during the three days it took to shoot the main love scene in "Basic Instinct." Sparks says he, his fellow actors, and the directors had "sex meetings" on "Queer as Folk" at which they went over the content and blocking of each love scene.

Creating chemistry is the actor's biggest task while performing love scenes. Even real-life couples can fail to generate heat onscreen. On the other hand, sometimes the actors can't stand each other, yet it turns into fireworks onscreen; Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in "Dirty Dancing" and Debra Winger and Richard Gere in "An Officer and a Gentleman" are just two reported examples. The good news is that actors can usually spend at least an hour discussing comfort levels with each other before the lighting has been set up and hair and makeup happens.

"Sometimes if you really do have chemistry, or wish you had chemistry, it can really muck everything up," explains Blair. "Right now I'm shooting 'The Fog' with Tom Welling, and we have a scene where my character brushes him off in a friendly way, but I couldn't play it with confidence because I was so enamored with his beautiful face. My husband had a bit of a laugh about that because he never sees me really flustered. [Before this] I've just been kind of neutral with all my co-stars, and it allows us the freedom to just get to act -- that's the safest approach. I don't understand the thing when people want to meet and say, 'We have to see if we have chemistry.' It's called acting."

Says Sparks, "That is one of the weirder things about sex scenes: You might actually find them attractive, and they may be married offscreen -- they may have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, there may be something else going on -- and you have this really difficult moment of, 'Oh, that's not real.' You feel a little denied and pulled away from."

"The challenging love scenes are the ones where you can't stand the girl that you've got to do it with, but sometimes [those scenes] come out the best," shares Enos. "It's that love-hate thing. If [the actors] have, like, a carnal dislike for each other, I think that [the scenes] tend to come out better. If you can act, that's where you're really called upon, even if you dislike the person. You've just got to get beyond it. If you can't, then it's just going to fall flat and be lousy."

Audio Dialogue Replacement (ADR) can be another layer of embarrassment for actors who thought they had finished their love scenes on-set. It's difficult to mike actors while they're making out, so the exaggerated "oohs and ahs" are left for postproduction.

"I think I blush a bit doing the ADR in a room with a bunch of technicians who don't know you," says Blair. "You have to do this moaning and screaming while watching your naked body on film. It's surreal. I don't view it as myself. It's just the character, but, yeah, there are a bit of uncomfortable moments, especially when Mom sees the film."

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