when Outlander‘s Marsali gave birth in Sunday’s episode, her husband Fergus wasn’t the only coach on hand.
Vanessa Coffey, an intimacy coordinator the Starz series brought on board this season, was deeply involved in the way the historical drama approached and shot the highly emotional, physically revealing scene.
Star Lauren Lyle tells TVLine that ardent readers of Diana Gabaldon’s books, on which the show is based, had made her aware of the big moment years ago, soon after she landed the part. In Episode 2, Lyle’s character Marsali is in slowly progressing, increasingly worrisome labor when her husband de ella Fergus helps things along by kissing and caressing her bare breast de ella. The camera leaves the room before his ministrations go farther and then ultimately work; Marsali delivers a baby boy, Henri-Christian, by the end of the episode. (Read a full recap.)
“The godsend is that everything is prosthetic,” Lyle says, laughing. “So that’s lovely and very helpful.” Even more important, she adds, was Coffey’s part of her in the proceedings. “We had good conversations and figured out why it is that that’s happening and what we wanted to do with it. So we worked it out, and it was great.”
Cesar Domboy, who plays Fergus, chimes in. “It’s almost like a choreography at some point, because it’s me and Lauren literally going beat after beat, like, ‘OK, should we do this? Should I move there?’ Because you have to be aesthetic at some point, and to sell something like that, it has to be watchable… We found our rhythm.”
On Monday, TVLine spoke in depth with Coffey about teaming up with Lyle, Domboy and the show’s production staff to make the scene work for everyone involved.
TVLINE | Correct me if I’m wrong, but an intimacy coordinator is basically someone who’s on set, acting as a liaison between the actors and production, making sure everyone’s comfortable with what’s happening and just kind of being concerned with the logistics and the practicalities of putting a scene like this together. Did I get any part of that wrong?
You didn’t get any part of that wrong, but there are a few more things to it, which is to research the scene itself, the nature of the scene, particularly for something like this because it was so specific, with what would be required to bring on birth. And also for the time period as well so just doing research on that and also the choreography element of it as well. Where are arms, where are limbs going, exactly what the placement is going to look like so we can tell the story appropriately through the body.
TVLINE | You’re coming into this show in Season 6 — talk to me about coming into a situation where a show like this has already done a ton of intimate scenes in its run.
It’s the first time that I”ve worked on a show that hasn’t had an intimacy coordinator from the start, where I haven’t been there from the start. So it is a different environment to come into. I have to say, in this particular case — and I promise you I’m not just saying this — they’ve been extremely welcoming, both from cast and from crew who really welcomed the role and were really interested in what the role could add . It’s about protection, sure, but it’s also about OK what can this role actually add to the storytelling of these moments as well? What could we do differently in Season 6 that we maybe haven’t looked at before? And going into depth on some of that would probably be the biggest thing.
TVLINE | Walk me through the birth scene, from seeing it the first time in the script to prepping with César and Lauren, on to the actual shooting.
It starts, absolutely you’re right, with reading the script. Seeing what the detail is in there, what we can draw out already, what are the physical actions that have already been described by the writers’ room that they want to see. And then it’s a matter of speaking with the executive producers next to find out what their vision is for the scene or make sure that again, we’re being true to what they’re trying to say for that particular scene, because it might be more than what’s on the page, actually. There might be more things they want to draw out. So after having those conversations, then having a conversation with the director about their artistic vision for the scene and how we’re going to bring that to life, collaboratively, and then having conversations with the actors individually at first to say “OK, these are the parameters of the scene that have been set out so far. What are your thoughts on that? It really sounds obvious, but asking some really nice, open questions of the actors to make sure you’re eliciting as much information from them as possible about any concerns they’ve got.
Also going into things like what they want to draw out in the scene, too. Anything I need to be aware of before we go into choreographing the scene. And once you have those chats individually with each other actors, to feed anything back to the director and to production that they need to know. And then the next step is getting in and doing a physical rehearsal and in this case — and the art department are absolutely fantastic on Outlander because the set up a rehearsal space for us that was essentially the equivalent of what we would have on set, because they were using the set that day. It was fabulous because you actually are working with all of the props, anything you might need in order to bring that scene to life, you’ve got it in place. Actually, that was really helpful, because one of the things that I hadn’t brought my mind to was the fact that in this case, there is also a wooden hand that we’re dealing with in the choreography. So that was like, OK, we need to change things, because you won’t have you leaning on a hand you couldn’t possibly be leaning on. So there were practicalities in the choregraphy that we had to consider.
TVLINE | Lauren mentioned that she was wearing a prosthetic during the scene. Did you have it to use during the rehearsal, or was that added later?
We did have the prosthetic belly in place for our rehearsal, yes.
TVLINE | I apologize for this clarification, but did the prosthetic belly include the prosthetic breast and nipple that we saw in the show?
I’m not sure what the rules are about talking about prosthetics. I’m really glad that Lauren mentioned that she was wearing a prosthetic belly. I’m not sure about… [Checks in with a Starz rep who is on the call]
TVLINE | The conversation I had with her and César was about “this is an odd position for friends/coworkers to be in, Vanessa helped us through it, I was wearing a prosthetic.” That was the tone. She didn’t say “That wasn’t my boob,” but she basically said “That wasn’t my boob.”
[Laughs] As long as the actor is comfortable having shared that information with you, that’s completely fine. So yes, we did have a prosthetic breast in place. That was also because obviously with Lauren’s breasts, her breasts would n’t look pregnant in the way Marsali’s should. The nipple changes quite a lot when you’re pregnant, especially in that state of pregnancy. So again we had to be true to what you would actually see at that time. So yes, we are actually working with a prosthetic.
TVLINE | It always blows my mind that actors can do scenes like that with people who are their co-workers and friends. It’s so raw and vulnerable.
You’re absolutely right, which is why there’s such a big piece of work to be done around separating the actor from the character. Because the actors have their boundaries of course, and we need to be true to those in order to tell the story for the characters… If we train actors, we talk with actors around how the character walks, how they sit, how they stand, how they breathe in different weathers, all this kind of stuff. But we so rarely talk to actors about how the character has sex or how the character kisses. So in those moments, actors will often fall back to what they do personally. And that’s a very vulnerable place to be. But when we’re approaching it through character, it’s a lot less vulnerable.
TVLINE | I remember Lauren saying that actors don’t want to make the same sounds they do in that situation in real life. You want that division, like you said.
Exactly, right down to thinking about what the character sounds like when they orgasm or what the character sounds like when they are making love should be entirely different from the way the actors do.
TVLINE | Caitriona Balfe has spoken about how being pregnant and doing sex scenes was a new vulnerability for her this season. Can you talk to me about when you have someone who is pregnant, what are the conversations that come up or what are some things that arise that you might not have with an actress who isn’t pregnant?
The conversations are almost the same, it then comes down to what we do in the room to make sure somebody does feel comfortable, whether that’s through choreography, checking out positions, making sure somebody feels physically OK. If they want to see playback, for example, they can have a look at that and see what the angle looks like and whether they’re comfortable with what’s being shown… I’m not necessarily saying that Caitriona asked for playback, but certainly other actors I’ve worked with who have been pregnant have requested that, because you do want to be able to see what the camera is seeing.
It’s also about that aftercare with the actor, because part of the job that I didn’t mention to you before that I should’ve mentioned is also about checking in with the actor a couple of days after we’ve shot a scene, just to see how they’re feeling about it. I’m a huge fan of Brené Brown, and she talks about something called the “shame hangover,” which can come out two to three days after you’ve done something. You know, that awful feeling if you’re walking down the street and you suddenly go, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did that a couple of days ago.” We want to make sure, with an intimate scene, that somebody is feeling really well supported and really comfortable and confident about what they’ve done, particularly if they’re in a vulnerable place.