PASADENA, Calif. – Actors have no trouble milking a death scene or outrunning a zombie or two. But when it comes to love scenes, those are only for the brave.
In the olden days, on-screen married couples were required to sleep in twin beds and lovemaking was a glancing kiss. But with the ascent of cable television, almost anything goes. Shows like "The Sopranos," "Ray Donovan," "The Affair" and "Shameless" have pushed the envelope so far that even networks are getting into the act with raunchy comedies and heavy-breathing dramas.
Emmy Rossum, who plays the oldest daughter on "Shameless," said cable dramas have more in mind than titillation.
"Showing sexuality as part of art is no different than showing any other part of life to inform the art," she said. "Sometimes you do have sex for a reason that has nothing do with sex. Maybe it's about power. Maybe it's about insecurity. Maybe it's about just wanting to connect. Maybe it's about just wanting to feel good. And sometimes it's just that we get the chance to do something great to show the audience something deeper about a character. It really has nothing to do with sex and everything about emotion."
Michelle Ashford, executive producer and writer on Showtime's "Masters of Sex," was already fortified when the show began because it's about Masters and Johnson and their studies into human sexuality that began in the late 1950s.
"We had an interesting sort of dilemma or a challenge or a lucky thing on our show, which was that our show was about sex," she said. "So we came out of the gate knowing that we were going have to tackle sex all the time. And one of the things that was very appealing to me is they came at it through their work initially, which was, of course, science.
"So we had that built into our show, and that allowed us to look at sex almost in the polar opposite way to how it has been approached, I think, for many years, which is how do you make sex look sexy? Our job was how do you make it look as unsexy as is humanly possible? Because what it was was a piece of science for us. So that was an interesting way to come at sex."
Maura Tierney, who stars as the jilted wife in "The Affair," said she was eager at first to approach the steamy love scenes.
"I found myself super, super game for everything before we started. And you're a little more anxious. But I feel like I grew with the season. It got easier for me to risk things as we shot it, and as I understood who I was playing, and I got a little more confident. So it was really exciting and different."
She realized that she had to explore new depths for the intimate scenes. She told herself, " 'I, Maura Tierney, have to be different, and I'm required to call upon different parts of me to get through the scene and to communicate what needs to be communicated through the script.' "
Dominic West, who plays Tierney's husband, has spicy scenes with both Tierney and Ruth Wilson, who portrays his lover.
"The nature of acting is to have to become very, very into it with strangers very quickly, whether you're doing a play or this show," he said. "In this show we're doing a lot of intimate sex scenes with Ruth, whom I'd never met before, and Maura, whom I'd never met before — and that's a big challenge."
Sarah Jessica Parker, who had some spiffy tussles with Mr. Big on "Sex and the City," has a non-nudity clause in her contract, but it isn't a case of morality.
"It's not about some sort of judgment about people who do it because I think it's great if you feel comfortable and feel you're not being exploited and it's something you want to do. I think it's grand," she said. "It's just not for me. I've always been modest and nervous about that experience, so I've just never done it."
Jane Seymour, who's played some juicy trysts, insisted that creating them is no fun.
"It's torture. The angle at which you have to pose, you really have to be a contortionist, you know. If your leading man or you have any makeup on, that sort of slides from one person to another. God forbid you're wearing red lipstick and, of course, the hair — it's in the way. There's nothing sexy about it at all."
Torrey DeVitto, who participated in a smoldering scene in "Army Wives," agreed. "Love scenes, it's never NOT awkward," she said. "It's always uncomfortable. I don't do nudity. I'm not saying it's wrong, I have friends who do it. Maybe if Johnny Depp called me tomorrow and offered me a job that required nudity, I might do it."