Illustration by Yuko Shimizu
Evan Handler has pretended to have sex with lots of women. His wife, Elisa Atti, knows all about it. Before the 48-year-old regular on Showtime’s edgy comedy series Californication gets busy onscreen, Atti runs lines with him. And when the torrid scenes featuring Handler, best known as Charlotte’s bald husband on Sex and the City, are broadcast, Atti often snuggles up with him to watch.
But there’s one thing the couple rarely do together: talk about the fake sex on the day of Handler’s performance. “That would seem particularly provocative,” he says.
Diane Farr spent 13 episodes on FX’s wry firefighter drama Rescue Me having a steamy affair with a man she described to her husband as “superhot”: the actor Daniel Sunjata. But just as she did when she nibbled the ear of a costar on CBS’s crime series Numb3rs, Farr followed a self-imposed rule: If feigning lust inspires the real thing, save the sizzle for later. “You have to make sure that when that button is pushed,” Farr says, “you bring home the response.”
Or else. For actors in committed relationships, love scenes can be the craft’s most treacherous terrain. It doesn’t matter that the heavy breathing summoned by the command “Action!” is often awkward and humiliating to perform, what with dozens of crew members on the set, counting down to lunch break. Sex scenes can hammer away at a couple’s sense of trust, revealing old fissures and making room for more.
Think of a humid greenhouse, which fools plants into pumping out the plumpest, juiciest tomatoes. That’s what film and TV sets can do to emotions. Actors often work 20-hour days, sometimes far from home, tucked inside windowless soundstages, fending off boredom between takes by trading intimacies. The bonds that form may be fleeting, but they’re intense.
“It’s kind of like if you go to war with somebody,” says actor Scott Conte, a visiting assistant professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. “I’ve done one-day shoots where I’ve gotten to know the person in a more intimate way than some acquaintances I’ve had in my life because you’re asked to show all these emotions in such a short amount of time. It almost makes you feel like you’re further along in the relationships than you actually are.”
The better the actor, the more convincing the sex scene—and the more potentially wrenching for the actor’s mate. No wonder so many couples devise rituals, some subtle, others more concrete, that they hope will ease the pain. Where there’s smoke, yes, there’s often a spark. But that doesn’t mean you have to burn the house down. Thus: ground rules.
Actor Michael B. Silver, whose many credits include recent episodes of the TV series Heroes and Brothers and Sisters, fell in love with his wife, Katie Mitchell, in an acting class after the two did a sex scene from the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar. So they know better than most that when you engage your libido in the service of drama, you sometimes can’t unring the bell.
For that reason, Mitchell and Silver have always been careful to pay close attention to how they talk to each other about their love scenes. Even scripted passion can stoke real chemistry, they say. You’d have to be dead not to react. So discretion is key. Silver might mention whether his costar was flirty or shut down, but he skips the details. Mitchell returns the favor.
“We both know it’s not natural to be in bed with somebody or to kiss somebody for months where the whole thing is you’re in love, and then turn it off when you leave the rehearsal hall,” says Mitchell, who has appeared in the TV shows Criminal Minds and Bones. “It’s not natural. And yet you can do it. Ultimately the technique is more about ethics. If I do get turned on by someone while I’m kissing them, [I know] that’s all it was. And then I just walk away.”
Of course, there are those—some of them A-listers—who didn’t walk away. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt infamously ignited their romance on the set of the sexy action film Mr. & Mrs. Smith (while Pitt was married to Jennifer Aniston). Richard Burton met then-married Elizabeth Taylor on Cleopatra. Katharine Hepburn met the married Spencer Tracy on Woman of the Year.
David Duchovny, who plays a sex-addled novelist on Californication, checked himself into rehab for sex addiction and separated briefly from his wife, Téa Leoni, after the show’s second season. Asked recently about performing sex scenes, he said, “You punch in the clock, you go into work, and you’re playing a character. Personally, I’m not somebody that takes it home.” (Maybe that was the problem.)
Sam Mendes couldn’t stomach watching the love scene between wife Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio during the shooting of Revolutionary Road, even though he was the film’s director. So Mendes viewed the romantic reunion of the Titanic duo on a video monitor in a neighboring room, shouting out suggestions from afar.
Mendes may have been wise to keep his distance. (After all, did you see his wife get it on with Patrick Wilson in Little Children?) Later Winslet told reporters she was pleasantly surprised to find her chemistry with DiCaprio so powerful, they could just “slip right into it, like muscle memory.”
When they’re honest with themselves, actors generally admit that any butterflies they feel in the presence of a costar are usually just an illusion. But in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to remember that.
“I’ve had to fight the attraction for the person when I do the scenes where I’m pretending to fall in love with them,” says Farr. “You end up doing something you actually do with your real-life partner. You might move your leg a certain way. But you’re the only person that knows that’s your actual authentic behavior. You end up feeling very close to these people because they’ve seen you do something very private.”
This realization led Farr to reach out to the girlfriend of her onscreen love interest in Rescue Me, writing her a note. “It said, ‘Hi. I’m Diane and I’m totally not interested in your boyfriend.’ She really seemed to appreciate that.”
But this sort of outreach—even when genuine—can strike some as protesting too much. Most actors take it upon themselves to look out for the feelings of their mates. Pamela Adlon, who plays Handler’s wife on Californication, has stumbled upon a way to make her onscreen sex scenes nonthreatening to her husband: When the episode airs, her proper British mother comes over to watch.
“My mom sits there and says, ‘Oh, it’s lovely. You look very nice,’?” says Adlon, explaining that the seating plan—Adlon on the couch bookended by her husband and Mum—throws cold water on even the most erotic encounter.
For Handler, it’s laughter that gets him and his wife past the raunchiest scenes, like this one from Californication’s last season in which Handler’s character pinch-hits for a porn star: First Adlon ducks between his legs to (ahem) start the engine, then the revved-up Handler walks over to a young actress perched atop a desk and thrusts mightily into her naked loins while the camera lingers on his contorted face. Scenes like this give his wife pause, Handler says. “Some of it makes her a little queasy. But it makes me a little queasy to see myself doing that stuff,” he adds, joking, “We tend to have sex 10 to 20 times the day before I have to do one of those scenes.”
It seems that the most successful relationships between actors thrive by maintaining a sort of Jedi mind trick of perpetual disbelief. How else can an actor spend the day in bed with a stranger—limbs entangled, lips locked—and then later slip under the covers with his or her real squeeze? How else could that squeeze banish thoughts of those hands groping another? It’s weird for everyone.
Conte, the visiting UCLA professor, was newly engaged when he was cast in a play that called for him to simulate sex, half dressed with a lovely blond costar. He did his best to prepare his fiancée, now wife, Bibi Dhillonn, explaining that the physical stuff was highly choreographed: His hand would go on the actress’s hip, he would hold her, they would kiss longingly. It might look wanton, Conte told Dhillonn, but it was about as sexy as following a road map.
The first time she saw the play, Dhillonn was fine. But when she saw it again, she noticed a facial expression of Conte’s combined with a gesture that was so familiar, it made her heart pound and sent blood rushing to her face. The theater was tiny, and she knew that she couldn’t walk out without being noticed and interrupting Conte’s performance. So she just sat there, watching the visage she’d thought Conte reserved only for her and tried to remind herself that the man she loved was acting.
“I knew it was coming, and yet for some reason I was like, ‘Oh. They’re actually touching each other,’?” says Dhillonn, an administrator in UCLA’s theater department, remembering being surprised by her own surprise. “Sometimes Scott’s own mannerisms come out in the role he’s playing. When that’s happening, it’s harder to separate Scott from the act onstage.”
You can love your mate and trust them implicitly, Dhillonn says, but part of your brain is still screaming, If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, isn’t it a duck? (Or something that rhymes with duck.)
“There was real body contact,” she says, recalling where her mind went. “If there was nude body contact, you would have to wonder: Does he enjoy how her skin feels? Are her curves better?”
There are plenty of sex scenes on film that look real or actually were (and no, we’re not talking about porn)
The Brown Bunny
» Chloë Sevigny has confirmed in interviews that she was not acting (no kidding!) in a scene in which she performs fellatio on Vincent Gallo. Reportedly the four minute shocker was filmed with remote cameras and no one else on set.
Wild Orchid (1990)
» Mickey Rourke and Carré Otis were an item when this romantic drama was shot; they later married and divorced. Even though the tie didn’t bind—man, there was heat in those couplings, which are rumored to be real.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1976)
» Kris Kristofferson and Sarah Miles so enjoyed their sex scenes in this movie that they staged some additional ones for Playboy. Kristofferson has said he regrets the dalliance, which ended his marriage to Rita Coolidge.
Don't Look Now (1973)
» Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie starred in this horror film about a couple whose daughter has drowned. Many have asserted that their famous lovemaking sequence, which had to be trimmed to avoid an X rating, was not simulated.