Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Truth Behind Filming A Hollywood Love Scene

Even the most macho of movies has been known to make room for a love scene, whether it's a steamy makeout session or full-on getting it on. Directors might as well face it, they're addicted to love, even though including sex or nudity can complicate dreams of box office glory. They have to figure out how to depict romance in a way that's authentic enough to get the audience's hearts pounding, while keeping their movie in line with the notoriously prudish Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) mysterious guidelines. A flash of flesh too far can make the difference between scoring that lucrative PG-13 rating and the R that automatically limits your (legal) box office audience to filmgoers over 17.

And then there's the whole business of filming the deed in the first place. If you've ever dreamed of having a spouse-proof excuse to get up close and physical with the best-looking people in the world, be warned that it's not all it's cracked up to be. Many actors swear that shooting love scenes is one of the worst parts of their job — and just to hammer the point home, in 2015, Games of Thrones star Natalie Dormer told Women's Health, "Anyone who says they're laid back about sex scenes is a fibber." Looking at what goes on backstage to bring the romance to life, we think she might be right. Here's the truth behind filming a Hollywood love scene.

Many actors attach nudity riders to their contracts

Nudity becomes an issue before actors are even confirmed to appear in a film, thanks to something called a nudity rider. This is a document separate from the contract, which stipulates that the film requires nudity. And they get very specific: nudity riders are supposed to be based off the completed screenplay, outlining exactly what will be on show and when, how much physical contact there will be with other performers, how many people will be on set, and what can and can't be done with the footage and any still images that are taken. 

If the content of the scene changes later, the producers are supposed to update the nudity rider to include the new action and give it to the actor and their representatives for review, and then everyone signs it again. Interestingly, while an actor is within their rights to change their mind and duck out of the scene up until the very last minute before filming, they can't retroactively stop footage from being used after it's been shot.

Actors can also explicitly stipulate that they won't get explicit: for example, despite the title of her famous show, Sarah Jessica Parker's Sex and the City contract contained a clause that said she wouldn't appear nude.

Some actors are pushed to do more on set

While the nudity rider is comforting in theory, it hasn't always worked out on set. The Me Too movement has been bringing Hollywood's seedier side into fuller view — but not all of the revelations revolve around the casting couch or naked line-ups superstar Jennifer Lawrence revealed. Even on set, in front of dozens or even hundreds of crew members, actors — and especially actresses — have been pressured to do nudity that wasn't stipulated in their previously agreed rider. 

Jon Rubinstein, founder and CEO of New York-based talent agency Authentic Talent & Literary Management, told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, "Mostly, where you get into trouble is where a producer or director approaches an actress directly on a set and asks for something that wasn't negotiated... 'Look, the whole crew wants to go home... We just have to get this one last shot. The way that we've been doing it isn't working. Can you drop the towel?'... Then suddenly you're standing there and you've got 20 people waiting for you, and you go, 'Ugh, fine.' That happens all the time."

However, he's hopeful that the attention from #MeToo will help: "In the same way that behavior that was ignored a few years ago is no longer being ignored, this is no longer going to be tenable, that a director or producer would put on that kind of pressure."

Sex scenes are often choreographed — but not always

As with any other kind of scene, the director often has a vision, and many prefer to choreograph sex scenes. For example, Paul Verhoeven, director of Showgirlsthe highest grossing NC-17 movie of all time — told Vulture, "All sex scenes in my movies are precisely choreographed... Every move is already clear before we start, because I talk with my actors and actresses in a very open way about what will be visible, where the camera will be, what the actions are."

Sometimes the stars themselves work out the moves: Keira Knightley recalled that for Atonement, she and James McAvoy worked with director Joe Wright to choreograph their famously sexy library scene "like a dance." But Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton took a more spontaneous approach in 2001's Monster's Ball: Berry told The Guardian, "There was no real direction in the screenplay, it just had to be animalistic... It was four days before the end of shooting... and we just went for it." 

Similarly, Jean-Marc Vallee, director of Big Little Lies, Wild, and Dallas Buyers' Club, likes the off-the-cuff approach, telling the New York Times, "There was no specific choreography, but there's a way of setting a tone. Restricted crew, it's just available light where we can move 360 degrees with the camera... let's see where it goes from there."

It's becoming more common to have an intimacy coach

Another result of people speaking out against crossed boundaries on set is that it's becoming more common for directors to hire an intimacy coach to guide actors through potentially awkward love scenes. Think of them as a stunt coordinator, but instead of showing actors how to jump out of windows without getting hurt, they help them get comfortable with kissing and nudity. Intimacy coaches help actors establish their boundaries with scene partners, choreograph moves everyone is comfortable with, and can also intervene if a director tries to push beyond what was agreed in the nudity rider, or on set.

Some productions go even further. For example, the cast of Netflix show Sex Education went through training to help get them used to the sexually charged content of the series. Star Ncuti Gatwa told Dazed, "We had a sex workshop, an intimacy workshop... We'd just met each other, it was a small room, we were sweating, panting, humping the walls — it was mental, but it bonded us all very quickly!" His co-star Aimee-Lou Wood added, "We had an intimacy coordinator there all the time — she was so helpful... It was well prepared, those scenes felt the most cathartic and the most rewarding. I was probably more prepared for the sex scenes than I was for any other scenes." So as awkward as it sounds, it pays off.

Practice makes (out) perfect

Just like a dance routine or fight sequence, getting choreographed sex scenes right for the camera requires practice. Exactly how much practice, and how intense it is, depends on the director. 

Armie Hammer recalled that Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino had a very hands-off approach to his rehearsals with co-star Timothee Chalamet: "It definitely wasn't a traditional rehearsal... We go out into the grass... Timmy and I kind of share a moment and we're like, 'You ready? OK, let's do this.' We get on the ground and we start making out, and he [Luca] goes, 'No, no, no. You're not feeling it, you need to feel it'... And we did it again, and we start, and we're going and we're going... this has been going on for quite a while, and we look up, and Luca has totally gone."

David Fincher, on the other hand, lived up to his fastidious reputation on the set of Gone Girl, according to Rosamund Pike and Neil Patrick Harris. "We had to rehearse the sex scene with David, like every inch of it," Harris told Out magazine. Pike said that filming was relatively easy: "However, the odd thing that [Fincher] asked us to do was rehearse this scene for two hours, alone, on an empty soundstage — just Neil and myself. And that is when it feels highly inappropriate."

Even with a limited crew, a lot of people are watching

Many directors will shoot a love scene on a closed set — meaning no one except the essential crew and cast members is allowed to attend. Queer As Folk actor Hal Sparks estimated that that's usually eight to 12 people, although he noted that there are often people watching on the monitors, and that editors also see the raw footage later. "So, boiling it down, between 15 and 20 people are going to see you at your most vulnerable," he said. But not all sets are the same: Mila Kunis reflected on her Black Swan sex scene, "'It's hard to have a sex scene, period... You're with 100-something crew members, lighting you, repositioning you, there's no comfort whatsoever."

Oh yes, the crew aren't just watching: they can be barking instructions. Two Weeks Notice actress Alicia Witt said, "There's nothing romantic or sexy about doing an on-camera kiss... it's so not intimate when you've got a room full of crew people and a boom in your face, and the cinematographer's telling you to move your nose a little bit so you're not casting a shadow." On the bright side, the innate mundanity means that for the crew, it's just another day at work. Selma Blair, who appeared in one of the most famous love scenes, commented, "Usually I don't think they care. The crew is too busy eating a sandwich or something."

Actors prepare for love scenes in different ways

Actors go about mentally preparing for a sex scene in different ways. Reese Witherspoon said that as much as she loved 2014's Wild, based on author Cheryl Strayed's memoir, "I really didn't want to do the sex scenes." She prepared for them by phoning Strayed, who should have been primed with words of wisdom, given that she wrote advice column and podcast Dear Sugar from 2010 to 2018. Apparently she went tough love, telling Witherspoon, "I'm sorry... but you're just gonna have to do it." Witherspoon also hired a hypnotist to help her get through the scenes. Something worked, because she was later nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role.

There is a faster solution: alcohol. For The Girl on the Train, Luke Evans and Haley Bennett downed bourbon and Cokes before their sex scenes together — not enough to get them drunk, Evans assured E!, but enough to get them singing show tunes. Franka Potente and Matt Damon took a similar approach on The Bourne Identity. Potente said, "We had a little sip of Jägermeister and we decided that we were gonna enjoy the day. And it was very enjoyable!"

Artfully placed (and named) cover-ups are used in Hollywood love scenes

Costume departments have various tools to help nudity-nervous actors retain some shred of dignity (in theory, anyway.) For the men, it's effectively a drawstring bag, which you put, er, everything into, and double-knot at the top. The name is two words that rhyme, and the second word is sock...

Women either get a kind of modesty-preserving Band-Aid, stuck on with double-sided tape or special glue, or a thong. As the star of the sex scene-heavy Fifty Shades trilogy, Dakota Johnson became something of an expert in the various tricks of the fake nudity trade: "I had these sort of strapless thongs that had glue on them... they would superglue it to my body so that it wouldn't fall off. And I would wear two of them." 

Up top, there are nipple pasties, which look like Band-Aids that go over nipples. They're supposed to be plain, but actress Olivia Wilde had other ideas. Her The Change-Up co-star Ryan Reynolds recalled, "I take her bra off, and she has those pasties on, but she's drawn these adorable little smiley faces on them. And I forget every line in the scene. Not just from this movie, from every movie I've done."

Some performers use a 'chastity pillow' for Hollywood love scenes

The term "chastity pillow" appears to have been coined or at least used by Jennifer Aniston and John C. Reilly while filming 2002's The Good Girl. Aniston had sex scenes with Reilly and Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie, and she was apparently pretty nervous, noting that she and Gyllenhaal were both "movie virgins" before making the film. "But it was easy. We had the chastity pillow, as John C. Reilly calls it, in between us," she said.

Reilly had less fond memories of his scene with Aniston and the pillow. He remembered, "I climb into the bed, she opens up the sheet and I swear, she had two pairs of sweatpants on, winter socks, a long-sleeved t-shirt... and she's like, 'Can I get the chastity pillow please?' I'm like 'What the hell is a chastity pillow?' And they bring out this big black pillow that she puts between her legs. And from that moment on, I went from Robert Palmer to the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. 'I'm sorry, I guess I'll just hump the pillow!'" No word on whether the pillow had to sign a rider.

Hollywood sex scenes can take a long time to film

Another requirement for sex scenes is stamina. While for us they only last for a few minutes or so, like everything in moviemaking, those scenes can take hours to film. For instance, Friends With Benefits actor Justin Timberlake said of filming love scenes with co-star Mila Kunis: "It's actually kind of annoying, you're there for 12 hours, it's exhausting." Another unnamed actor, who put the moon in moonlighting when he appeared as a body double in a TV series, told Cosmopolitan, "It was five or six hours [of filming], and I had skinned knees, bruises, and Band-Aids on my knees for days."

However, Timberlake and John Doe got off (ahem) lightly compared to Midsommar star Jack Reynor. His intense group sex scene in the widely discussed 2019 horror story took two weeks to film, and required him to be fully naked for a large portion of the time. Although the nudity was Reynor's idea, it was still a tough couple of weeks: "Every day, going to work and shooting something that is incredibly humiliating and upsetting personally and thinking about yourself in the context of it and trying to put yourself in the position of it...it was hard-core," he told Thrillist

Actors have to authorize the use of body doubles for Hollywood love scenes

If there's one thing audiences love more than the chance to see their favorite star in the nude, it's debating whether it's actually their favorite star or if they're using a body double. But using body doubles is not a casual decision. Directors can't use a body double without an actor's permission — which is clarified in their nudity rider. (And body doubles also sign their own nudity riders.) In 2017, Amber Heard counter-sued London Fields producer Christopher Hanley, claiming that he had hired a body double to perform graphic acts without her knowledge or consent, and filmed them in such a way that the audience was led to believe it was Heard they were seeing. The parties reached a settlement in 2018

That said, directors may be able to call on a double if the actor initially agreed to the nudity and then changed their mind — but they absolutely can't use CGI to put the actor's head on the other person's body without consent. As part of an attempt to stop any abuse of footage shot with body doubles, union SAG-AFTRA is supporting California legislation banning non-consensual digital alterations to sex scenes. Directors also can't use a body double to turn a clothed scene into a naked scene without the actor's permission.

Preparation for Hollywood love scenes involves body makeup

Good news for those of us not required to get naked on TV: movie stars don't naturally have perfect skin all over! They're helped along by a talented team and various products. Some makeup artists prefer spray tan over cover-up: Brigette Myre Sharpe, whose work you may have seen on True Blood, says that a fake tan can give actors the comforting illusion of being clothed. Others, including Fifty Shades makeup artist Evelyne Noraz, will use regular foundation mixed with lotion, which she rubs all over and sets with an aerosol spray foundation. And yes, according to Dave Franco, the process is as awkward as it sounds: "I woke up that morning and had a giant pimple on my ass! I had to go to the makeup artist, who I had also met that week, 'Can we go into the other room and you'll put makeup, literally, on my ass?'"

There's another problem with all-over body makeup, as Anne Hathaway pointed out. She said that while filming sex scenes for Love & Other Drugs, she initially tried to wear a robe between shots, "But then I found that every time I put my robe back on, it rubbed all the body makeup off, and that added 20 minutes to filming." Hathaway said that once she got over her inhibition and ditched the robe, "It just got, dare I say, fun."

The sweat in Hollywood love scenes is (probably) fake

All the lights and the crew members mean that love scenes can get hot — and not in a good way, as Dakota Johnson explained. "It's just sweaty and it's not very comfortable," she clarified, of her Fifty Shades sexperiences specifically. "And on top of that, my hands and legs were tied, and I was blindfolded, and I was being hit with this bizarre tool."

Unfortunately, natural sweat isn't the kind that looks good on camera, so makeup artists are on hand with synthetic versions that look more realistic than the real thing. For example, actors might be sprayed with a mix of rosewater and glycerine for that slightly dewy look, or smeared with Vaseline for an oily effect, as used by makeup artist Rocio Jahanbakhsh. Another tool in her collection is baby oil mixed with water, specifically used for bodies, and there are professional products like Ultra Sweat or Mehron Sweat and Tears. (That's right: movie sweat and tears can come from the same bottle — true versatility.)

CGI sometimes gets involved in Hollywood love scenes

Sometimes all the makeup, pasties and close scrutiny on set just aren't enough to stop slips from happening — and that's where the magic of CGI comes in. For example, in the raw footage of one scene in The Change-Up, Wilde's pasties were accidentally on show. The post-production crew digitally added nipples — with Wilde's approval. In 2011, she told Jimmy Kimmel, "I got to approve the nipples! They sent me an email saying, 'Please review nipple cover shot one through seven and decide which one is most like the original.'" According to Wilde, "I think it's pretty close."

Sometimes CGI is in the plan all along, especially when an actor refuses to perform nude but their head and body have to appear in the same sequence. For instance, Game of Thrones' Lena Headey met with praise and criticism in 2015 when shots of her head were digitally combined with double Rebecca Van Cleave's naked body for one particularly striking scene in the series (which is not known for being nudity averse.)  Headey defended her decision, saying, "I've done nudity. I'm not averse to it... the thought of being naked for three days and trying to contain her [her character Cersei] in the way she would be I think I would feel very angry... I didn't phone it in; I was actually there for three days with Rebecca." 

Yes, there are occasional awkward responses

Despite the awkwardness and the audience of crew members, some male actors have admitted that unexpected issues do sometimes, er, come up. Superman actor Henry Cavill confessed that he accidentally got aroused once — although he didn't identify the film — and added that he "apologized profusely" later. He's not alone. In 2009, Jesse Metcalfe said that his rehearsals with Eva Longoria for Desperate Housewives led to some awkward moments: "In the first scene we ever had... we were rehearsing and then the director was like, 'OK, get out of bed, we have to reset the set,' and I was like, 'I need a minute.'"

Even the famously composed Samuel L. Jackson is afflicted with this particular worry — although, at the same time, he's worrying about the opposite problem too. "I hate nude scenes... you have to apologize for getting excited or for not getting excited," he told Graham Norton. "I'm sorry if I do and I'm sorry if I don't. It's a weird conversation to have." If Samuel L. Jackson can't keep his cool in a sex scene, it's no wonder most actors find them more terrifying than titillating.