Ellen Lister

There’s nothing normal about getting nude on set

There’s nothing normal about getting nude on set
Image: BBC
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I remember how I felt the first time I saw Daisy Edgar-Jones’ nipples. Sitting on my sofa at home during lockdown, watching the BBC Three adaptation of Sally Rooney’s prize winning novel, Normal People, my jaw dropped as Edgar-Jones casually stretched an arm above her head, her bare chest fully exposed towards the camera.

“She’s so brave!” I shouted out of nowhere, at my boyfriend. “What?” he replied, eyes glued to the screen, lost in his own (potentially quite different) stream of thought. Whilst both Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal appear in the nude throughout the series, it was Edgar-Jones’ full frontal nakedness in particular that shocked me.

Having worked on film and TV sets when I was her age, I know how tough it is. Being a screen actor is essentially an exercise in how un-self-conscious you can be.

This is how it works: in-between takes, blokes in thick hiking boots and enormous North Face puffy jackets stomp around set chewing gum and yelling at each other to move heavy, expensive equipment. When the camera is finally ready to roll, the actors are plucked from a dark corner off set somewhere and thrust centre stage, where they must launch into the middle of a scene from yesterday with realistic, but undoubtedly intense emotion the second the director calls “Action!”. When this moment arrives, the lads on set go deadly quiet and stand around watching intently, hoping you don’t screw it up so they can break for lunch on time. Now imagine this, but you’re fully naked, too.

Yes, it is wonderful that there was an “intimacy coordinator” on Normal People to help make the actors feel comfortable (Edgar-Jones has said she felt “safe”) and it is truly excellent – and equitable – that we saw about the same amount of Mescal’s naked flesh. It must have helped that a “closed set” was operated, with fewer people standing around the edges. These are markers of how far the industry has come – thank you, “Me Too”. But these things certainly won’t have made it easy to strip off.

When I worked on the Harry Potter films I was asked one day to stand-in for Emma Watson in a “dream sequence” as her body double. The scene would see the lead characters Harry and Hermione appear partially naked and kiss. The creative teams wanted to try out different make up effects for the shot, and so asked me to quickly duck into a make shift tent and change into a small, beige piece of fabric that would, possibly, cover my nipples. I looked around the cold, expansive, grey set and at all the beefy men with headsets that filled it. At 19, I wasn’t that young. Still, I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. When I came to work the next day and found a tiny thong hanging in my dressing room – my costume for the day – I burst into tears. I didn’t do the scene, and I was very fortunate that the Harry Potter team were so supportive. On a different production I wouldn’t have worked again.

This kind of situation doesn’t just arise when the director or producers are male. Indeed six of the twelve episodes of Normal People were directed by a woman: Hettie MacDonald. Nor is nudity only problematic when the actors are young and impressionable. One of our most talented British actresses, Ruth Wilson (of Luther and His Dark Materials), allegedly left the Golden Globe winning series The Affair in 2018 due to the nature and frequency of the sex scenes she was asked to perform and the hostile environment in which she was made to perform them, by female showrunner, Sarah Treem. Predictably, and probably unfairly, Wilson has been labelled “difficult” for her reluctance. Incidentally, Wilson’s body double sued the producers of that show, when she was fired after confronting a member of the crew who called her the “Sexytime Double” on call sheets.

When I talk to actor friends about nudity, we all sigh, “is it ever worth it?”. On top of the embarrassment on set, there’s also the very real worry that exposing yourself on camera will draw the attention of porn sites, stalkers, and other assorted weirdos. It is horrifying that the sex scenes from Normal People have already been recut into a 22-minute compilation for Pornhub.com. The producers have said this is “deeply disrespectful” to the actors. Yes, it certainly is. However, I very much doubt that the people who sit at home, copying the faces of Daisy, Emma and Keira onto larger breasted bodies and distributing them around the internet really give a toss. Pornhub averages more than 100 billion views a year. It’s an unpleasant byproduct, that at 21, working on the job of your dreams, you might not have the experience to foresee.

Then there’s the personal threats. Kate Beckinsale was recently forced to call the police after a stalker turned up at her home. In the past she has had to deal with stalkers threatening to stab her. One famous British actress, who appeared on the West End stage a few years ago, was known to rush home at the end of each show instead of joining her fellow actors in the bar – with her stalkers, it simply wasn’t safe to do so.

Such stories may be sad, but they do not surprise me. There is something about being on TV, or perhaps it is just the connection with a seemingly glamorous industry, that seems to cause people to develop odd obsessions with actors or the characters that they play (and many do not distinguish between the two). I was only a body double on the Harry Potter films, yet I had complete strangers approach me at screenings and had fake Myspace accounts set up in my name, with detailed descriptions of what foods I liked and what my star sign was.

It’s enough to put someone off acting and the industry altogether. However, it is the utter incongruity of the things that happen on a film or TV production – getting “dressed for the day” in nothing but a thong – being naked in front of your colleagues then sitting next to them an hour later at lunch – that forms the incredible camaraderie between cast and crew. People get “the film bug” and never want to do anything else.

Normal People by all accounts created a safe space for the actors on set and has additionally turned out a critically acclaimed joy, so a huge well done to all involved. Still, I take my hat off to Daisy, for her bravery. Or perhaps one day, in solidarity, it will be my bra.