A couple of weeks ago, I watched Sheryl Underwood, round-table cleanup hitter for The Talk, ask Julia Stiles (stumping for Jason Bourne) what it’s like to film a sex scene. Underwood asked this question the way she asks every question: lacing her audience-mugging like Madmartigan, with just a hint of being over this shit.
Stiles answered Underwood’s question the way every actor answers this particular question, reading copy off the “What’s It Like to Film a Sex Scene?” boilerplate handout that every actor who films a sex scene must receive from their P.R. reps along with a basket full of mini-muffins—a basket probably affixed with a note that says, “Don’t actually eat these mini-muffins, mind; you’re about to film a sex scene.”
“What’s it like to film a sex scene?” is a question some poor talk show P.A. probably has to type into a Word .doc that segment producers send out to celebrity P.R. reps for them to choose which questions their actor-clients might have career- and life-affirming answers for in these actor-clients’ allotted segments. It’s a question with a history, I mean. That’s why it gets asked so much, even when, as far as I know, Stiles does not actually have a sex scene in Jason Bourne.
That’s fine, though, because the asking of this question is a fascinating sport, with clear rules in place that govern the way talk show hosts and actors talk about fake sex. That this particular bout from The Talk is the best bout in the history of this sport—like, the heavyweight title bout—is purely subjective, but I think a large part of my reason is that Julia Stiles once played a character called “Imogen” in Down to You (2000), a film where Freddie Prinze, Jr. tries to commit suicide by drinking shampoo. In other words, all Julia Stiles does is win. It’s actually kind of amazing: She covers all of the bases in like 35 seconds. (Watch in awe below; it starts at about 3:30 in.)
The rules of this sport are simple: The talk show host asks a series of rote questions and the actor provides a series of rote answers. It is incredibly important that both the questions and the answers are essentially the same every time this sport is played, just as it is incredibly important that talk show hosts ask these questions in a tone that is simultaneously turned on and slightly concerned that somebody’s parents might walk in. Meanwhile, actors must provide these answers in a tone that makes it clear that it was uncomfortable but sometimes that’s part of the job and it certainly wasn’t sexy, thank you very much. Also, it’s embarrassing to talk about—like, to give you some context, it’s more embarrassing than the Hoedown Throwdown scene in Hannah Montana: The Movie but less embarrassing than the rap battle scene in this year’s remake of Adventures in Babysitting.
This sport has done a lot for our culture—no question. If all actors approach sex the exact same way, then all humans probably do too, right? This ritual is like an iterated science experiment. You’ll know that the actor is playing the game correctly if they mention that A) their scene partner was “very respectful,” B) the crew was “great” and/or “supportive,” and C) like everyone, they have concerns about being naked. They say “C” despite the reality of nudists and other humans who are clearly fine with being naked, because when they say “like everyone” they’re basically slam dunking normative imperatives for bonus points.
They get additional bonus points if they use the phrase “break the ice” correctly, if they start by noting that it was the first or second day they were on set and/or if they emphasize, as Dakota Johnson did for Fifty Shades of Grey, that the work was “technical.” What it’s like to film a sex scene is apparently just as sexy as it is to win a spelling bee, or host a foreign dignitary, or join a support group. It’s definitely not like filming pornography, just so we’re all clear.
The reason this sport is so fascinating is because everybody wins! Talk show hosts get to ask attractive people what it’s like to have sex with other attractive people, which I’m sure if you caught Billy Bush in an honest moment he would admit is all he really ever wants to ask celebrities anyway. Attractive people get to make it very clear that despite their attractiveness they’re really just like you and me, and that like you and me they find sex awkward and scary, because again: Isn’t that how we all feel? Right?
The viewer wins because these conversations have become so rote that everybody involved just seems like they’re doing an Italian run for a decades-old script called What’s Performing Sex Like? Which…that may not seem like a victory at first blush, but have you considered that high schools simply refuse to replace bullshit like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet with a modern classic like What’s Performing Sex Like? There are far more great actors who have played the lead in What’s Performing Sex Like? than those who have played the lead in Hamlet!
Writers and directors win because nobody can go off script so nobody can ever ask why, for example, in cross-sex sex scenes men are always turning fully-clothed women around and groping them from behind. I mean, we all get it when said women find themselves staring into a mirror—when there’s a mirror, she’s going to feel something—but why do men do it a lot in mirrorless venues? Nobody can ever ask why the filming of sex scenes seems like an exclusive golf club with very strict rules that govern who can participate.
I admit that my evidence for this is anecdotal at best, but I Googled “actors talking about sex scenes” and Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan both seem to agree with my assessment that Billy Bush only apparently cares what it’s like to film sex scenes if he’s talking to white straight cis men and women. Nobody can ever ask why there aren’t more same-sex sex scenes, or why there aren’t more gay-, bi-, and pansexual individuals, trans* individuals, individuals of color, and differently-abled individuals who get to film and then talk about filming sex scenes. Nobody can ever ask why Hollywood still seems to think “sexually attractive” is a pretty narrow thing. Nobody can ever ask a follow up question about why actors are always lowering their voice and calling sex “weird.”
Nobody can ever ask why the sport has another golf-like problem: “normal” tees and “lady’s” tees. Men, once they’ve established that they did their gentlemanly best to make their scene partner feel as comfortable as possible, get to make a lot of jokes about what it is like to film sex scenes. Boring jokes. The same jokes. But never jokes about boners!
Women, however, often have to pretend that they rarely ever think about sex, and that any sexiness that we, the viewers, might perceive was entirely accidental. Unintentional. I’ve even heard actors claim that any sexiness is all in the editing and lights; it’s certainly not due to the humans who appear in them, who, again, didn’t feel sexy at all. It’s a very important part of this sport that we the audience understand that these women are Chris Parker and not Sesame Plexer—or, to continue with the same comparison, that they are Adventures in Babysitting (1987) and not Adventures in Babysitting (2016). Despite recent attempts by certain female actors to remedy this situation by making more jokes, most of this subversive minority performed their sex scenes with Jon Hamm in comedy films.
The best part of this sport is that it doesn’t make any sense. Not in the sense that “love” doesn’t make sense to people who don’t watch tennis, because a lot of sports don’t make sense to people who don’t watch them. This sport doesn’t make sense to anybody, because it’s people talking about not-sex to talk about sex. The question itself doesn’t make any sense.
It’s like asking an actor who rode a horse what it was like to ride a unicorn. If we can make a human being asking “how magnets work” a meme, why isn’t multiple human beings asking how sex works all the Internet is? In fact, this sport makes America great again, because it acts like the Internet doesn’t even exist, or like we don’t now live in a world where reams of pornography are available to anybody with half-decent access. This sport makes America great again because it resulted in Sandra Bullock talking about having fake fake-sex with Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man. (Watch this below. Short on time? Feeling uncomfortable? Fast-forward to 3:35 in.)
This sport exists in a world where all you have to do is Google “Julia Stiles sex scenes” to find assholes talking about Julia Stiles sex scenes. We also live in a world where nobody bats an eye when, in Batman v Superman, Zack Snyder has the killer of the Waynes, while shooting a load in Martha Wayne’s face, catch his gun on her pearl necklace which then explodes, proving that Zack Snyder’s entire approach to film language is dependent on how many ejaculation metaphors he can throw into five seconds of screen time. Sex is something we are weird about, so why is this sport constantly trying to pretend that sex and gender and sexual attraction are just as simple as getting people to see Swordfish by giving Halle Berry an extra $500K to go topless for less than two seconds?
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.