SYFY – HBO’s Game of Thrones wasn’t your average fantasy epic. It was grim, dirty, violent, and sexual. In fact, it had such frequent and graphic nudity that it helped coin the phrase “sexposition” when referring to plot exposition being doled out by a nude character. But according to a new book, the experiences of the cast in these intimate scenes left plenty to be desired — especially in the hit show’s early, scrappy days.
James Hibberd’s new oral history Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon: Game of Thrones and the Official Untold Story of the Epic Series digs into this plenty, including interviews with everyone from Khal Drogo’s Jason Momoa to Cersei’s body double, Rebecca Van Cleave. Few were complementary to the series’ handling of its sex scenes, most of which took place long before HBO mandated hiring intimacy coordinators for all its shows in 2018.
Momoa took first-time showrunners D. B. Weiss and David Benioff’s unprofessional handling of the situations in stride, though he needed to sometimes refuse their requests. Momoa recalled a time while shooting a Season 1 sex scene when he placed the intimacy pouch (which covers an actor’s genitals in nude scenes) in Benioff’s hand: “That was because David had been like, ‘Momoa, just take it off!’ You know, giving me s***. ‘Sacrifice! Do it for your art!’ I’m just like, ‘F*** you, bro. My wife would be pissed. That’s for one lady only, man.'”
Momoa added: “So afterward I ripped the thing off and kept it in my hand and gave him a big hug and a handshake and was like, ‘Hey, now you have a little bit of me on you, buddy.'”
His scene partner, Daenerys Targaryen actress Emilia Clarke, has spoken at length about her uncomfortable experiences doing nudity on the show. “Because Jason had experience — he was an experienced actor who had done a bunch of stuff before coming on to this — he was like, ‘Sweetie, this is how it’s meant to be, this is how it’s not meant to be, and I’m going to make sure that that’s the f***ing gaze,’ Clarke said on the podcast Armchair Expert. “He was always like, ‘Can we get her a f***ing robe? She’s shivering!’ … He was so kind and considerate and cared about me as a human being.”
“I was so desperate to be the most professional actor I could be that I’d be like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ for anything they threw at me,” Clarke said in Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon. “I’ll just cry about it in the bathroom later, whatever, you won’t know.”
The actress, who appeared fully nude in sex scenes and when Daenerys is “reborn” in fire alongside her dragons, spoke about the pressures of being an actress fresh from drama school on that set. “Those were tough days,” she said of the first season, adding, “I’ve had fights on set before where I’m like, ‘No, the sheet stays up.’”
Misleading promises from production reportedly ranged from people sneaking onto a closed set to a supposedly closed set being thrown wide open. Hodor actor Kristian Nairn remembered during his Season 1 nude scene (“probably the most traumatic day of my life,” he previously said), when a prosthetic was worn because there was a child in the scene. Alas, things did not go as planned.
“I was s*** scared, but I did it because of the whole body-positive thing — Game of Thrones has a lot of people of different shapes and sizes, probably more than any other show ever,” Nairn said. “It was a very busy day on set, which was the opposite of what they told me. I’ve never seen a busier set!”
Esmé Bianco, who played Ros, spoke about the show’s copious brothel scenes — particularly one in “You Win or You Die.” “It was supposed to be a closed set,” Bianco said. “I look behind me and there’s three guys all holding one flag over a light. I’m buck naked. I’m like, ‘Hang on a second. Since when does it take three people to hold that? They need to leave!'”
Episode director Daniel Minahan attributed this to “a lot of Italian crew when shooting that in Malta.” “I remember having to chase away people who were hiding in the back watching Sahara [Knite] and Esmé go at it,” Minahan said. That was left up to the director and the performers, before HBO’s intimacy coordinator requirements kicked in.
“Back then, none of that usually entered the conversation,” Bianco said of ensuring the well-being of the actors during intimate scenes. “But Daniel Minahan had worked with us the day before shooting to create some choreography to figure out exactly how it would be shot so we’d be more comfortable — that’s basically what an intimacy coordinator does now. And I think we need to be having those conversations prior to throwing actors into the deep end and letting themselves figure it out on set.”
Things certainly got a bit more intentional as the production went on, like in scenes such as Cersei Lannister’s nude Walk of Shame in “Mother’s Mercy.” Actress Lena Headey delivered the facial performance while her body double, Rebecca Van Cleave (who describes the scene as “one of the scariest, most wonderful experiences I could have imagined”) actually performed the nude walk through the city center.
From a production standpoint, there were certainly some precautionary measures taken, but some cast members remembered it lacking. “We’re shooting it in a city where you’re surrounded by walls that looked down on our Walk of Shame. We covered most of [the view lines] with umbrellas,” said executive producer Bernadette Caulfield. “That was our biggest challenge. We wanted to protect her, and we wanted to make sure just everybody behaved and was respectful of the situation, and we didn’t want to offend anybody. We left very little exposed, so to speak.”
The “make sure everybody behaved part” was perhaps where things didn’t go so smoothly. “That poor young girl had never done any naked work. When [the AD] shouted ‘cut,’ she wasn’t standing there as Cersei, she was standing there as a naked woman,” said Septa Unella actress Hannah Waddingham. “So I would battle my way through the crowd and wrap my habit around her until the costume department could get to her, because you’d have this load of guys just staring.”
Episode director David Nutter confirmed this. “Sometimes Rebecca would be walking, and the background actors would have this look of awe,” Nutter said. “The first AD came up to them and said, ‘If you act like this, I’m going to have to take you off the set! Haven’t any of you ever seen a p**** before? Let it go!'”
As Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season was in production from October of 2017 to July of 2018, most of the series’ nude scenes came long before HBO decided on its intimacy coordinator rules. But it sounds like the situations became more sensitively handled over time for the series. Hopefully the industry-at-large’s relationship to intimate on-screen moments will also continue to improve as professional dedication to it becomes a norm.