The Los Angeles Times has reported that, on the heels of a Golden Globe win, actor and director James Franco has been accused by five women of sexual misconduct. The allegations vary from examples that would clearly represent sexual harassment or even assault to some that occupy a hazier area of propriety.
One particular claim stuck out to me as less innocuous than it might seem to people who have not worked in the entertainment industry. Actress Sarah Tither-Kaplan, a student of Franco’s, claims that while working on one of his films in which she agreed to perform nude, she was approached by a producer the day of shoot on the set and asked if she wanted to perform in a bonus “orgy scene” with Franco. Tither-Kaplan and other actresses were also asked to perform in a nude scene that was entirely unscripted.
Again, these are two of the least damning and salacious allegations. Others included removing protective genital gear from women without permission. But for anyone who has worked in film or theater, these offers to perform in “bonus scenes” raise some very dangerous red flags.
This Puts Unfair Pressure on Actors
Having worked in theater, and less so film, for more than 15 years, I have been involved in several productions that contained nudity or simulated sex. There are two keys to making sure that such situations are dealt with in a safe and fair way. Professionalism and preparation are absolutely essential. Springing a nude or sex scene on actors on-set, the day of a shoot, is simply never appropriate. This is especially true for young actors without representation and little experience.
The decision to appear nude, and the context of that nudity, is a major one for actors. Potential repercussions — including the footage making its way online, which apparently happened with Tither-Kaplan — can be real and damaging. On the other hand, such roles can also be stepping stones or just good work. Being asked, on set, in the moment, to agree to such a scene puts unfair pressure on actors, especially if they suspect they aren’t really being asked. One woman who refused to do a certain scene was simply dropped from the film.
It is not only fairness that this situation compromises. It also compromises safety. Many nudity riders for film contracts include strict guidelines. Scenes are shot on a closed set, and scripted and blocked before they happen. There are rehearsals to ensure that everyone knows what is going to happen to their bodies. Some of this appears not to have happened here, which means either the contract was violated, or a vulnerable actress without an agent signed a bad contract.
Even when allowed by a contract or lack thereof, these are just bad practices that need to be scrubbed from the entertainment industry. At the moment there is no clear industry-wide set of guidelines and standards to protect young women and men from facing this kind of abuse. Just as stage combat must be carefully choreographed to avoid injury, nudity and sex must be too, to avoid sexual contact that the actor doesn’t want or doesn’t feel he or she agreed to. It is wildly inappropriate to simply throw naked actors on a bed and say, “Let’s just improvise this.”
We Simply Need a Set of Best Practices
There may be actors and directors who feel that establishing strict standards for these kinds of scenes interferes with artistic freedom. After all, if everyone is an adult and up for whatever, that’s their choice. They may also argue that such rules ruin the spontaneity of acting, keeping actors from living in the moment.
These concerns, however, fail to take into account the intense power dynamics that exist in the industry, and the fact that from a production standpoint, an artist’s safety must come before the quality of the product.
Right now a hodgepodge of rules from individual unions, movie studios, theater companies, schools, and universities govern how nudity and sex scenes and are treated by producers, directors, and actors. This must change. What is needed is a set of best practices that apply to the industry as a whole, on every level.
Further, upon embarking upon any project or training, these guidelines and rules must be made clear upon entering. Over and over, from school to stage to set, artists and producers should hear these rules repeated. Something very close to this has become common for stage combat. We need it now for nude and sex scenes. The standards must be so clear and well-known that violations immediately ring alarm bells for everyone there.
Stop Talking, and Start Taking Concrete Protective Steps
Acting is a unique profession in many ways. For a period of weeks or months, sometimes longer, actors and crew operate in close and intimate ways, and not usually sexually, although that happens, too. A profound amount of trust is needed for a film or play to be successful. In the past, the industry has trusted that producers, directors, and scene partners will abide by a vague standard of appropriate conduct. Given the stories from Hollywood over the past year, that isn’t going to cut it anymore. Too many women have been taken advantage of.
The libertine world of entertainment, in which powerful auteurs like Franco make up the rules as they go along and celebrities like Al Franken decide they get to rehearse kissing whenever they want, is one we can no longer allow. If the changes I suggest had been in place, these inappropriate actions could have been stemmed. Had they not been, it would be clear to us now that they violated standards. Instead we have games of he-said, she-said, in which he can hide behind the defense of artistic expression.
Wearing all black to the Golden Globes and making speeches is all well and fine, as is donating to legal funds for abused actors or promising to believe them next time. But if time is really going to be up for the kind of abuses alleged against Franco, the industry needs hard, clear rules governing nudity and sex in auditions, rehearsals, and performances. Nothing short of that will suffice.