How Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Prod. plans to keep actors safe on set : TheGrio


Producer / Screenwriter Lena Waithe speaks on stage at the “BET Twenties” produced by Lena Waithe Screening during the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2020 at Park City Live in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images for BET)

Last month it was announced that multi-hyphenate powerhouse Lena Waithe and her production company, Hillman Grad Productions, had made a pledge to hire and train a new generation of intimacy coordinators to ensure inclusion and safety were being prioritized on all their projects. 

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When I heard this my first response was, “Wow. That sounds great! But what does an intimacy coordinator do exactly?” That same day I reached out to Waithe to ask her that question directly, and without skipping a beat she responded, “You should definitely talk to Mia.”

The Mia in question is Mia Schachter, who’s worked as consent educator and intimacy coordinator on Waithe’s Twenties on BET and also on the HBO hit Insecure.

Schachter is a Los Angeles native and has the kind of warm personality that instantly makes you feel like you’re talking to an old friend. Which is why last week, before we even started our interview, I could already see why she would be an asset to a nervous actor preparing to do an awkward sex scene.  

“There is an inherent hierarchy on a set,” Schachter explained during her exclusive chat with theGrio. “Generally, directors really want actors to be as comfortable as possible, but if a director were to ask an actor flat out, ‘Would you be comfortable showing full exposed chest?’ That actor might not really take the time to actually check in with themselves and see if that’s something that they want to do, because there’s often a people-pleasing thing where there’s a knee jerk like, ‘Yeah, whatever you need,’ kind of thing.”

“Just having an intimacy coordinator as a neutral buffer is really helpful to mediate that power dynamic,” she concludes.

Improving the culture, once and for all

The stars of Twenties (Photo: BET)

When it’s spelled out so clearly, the concept of having someone around to keep actors safe during moments when discomfort and/or skewed power dynamics are inevitable feels like a no-brainer.

But some would be shocked to find that up until a few years ago intimacy coordinators weren’t seen as a necessity and as recently as December 2018 there was only one facilitator serving all of Los Angeles.

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But as the social climate drastically changed in the wake of #MeToo, the film and TV industry realized that not only is it important to have people on productions making sure that everyone is respected, it’s actually kind of frightening the role didn’t previously exist. 

While explaining what her day-to-day looks like, Schachter pointed out that she and others in the role are not killjoys hired to act as the “the sex police.” Instead, ICs serve as liaisons to arm creatives and everyone else involved on a project with the right language to foster a safe environment. 

A scene from Season 4 of Insecure (Photo: HBO)

“Writers, producers, directors, and then actors want to be up for anything and they want to be game. They want to be seen as easy to work with, as though they are a risk-taker,” she said, adding that women in particular often feel subtly pressured to come off as “team players” even to the detriment of their own personal boundaries.

But when it comes to intimacy and power dynamics, gender isn’t the only thing to be concerned with. Race and sexual orientation — two intersections that Waithe herself understands on a personal level — also play a pivotal role in silencing people.

“Intimacy coordinators should not only be mandatory on every set, but they should reflect people from all walks of life,” Waithe, Hollywood Reporter‘s TV Producer of the Year recently told Deadline. “That’s why myself and everyone at Hillman Grad productions thought it was important to invest in helping Black and brown people, as well as those in the LBTQIA+ community, get certified.”

The 36-year-old is spending money out of her own pocket to guarantee that people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community will, moving forward, be hired to speak up on behalf of their own.

Learning from past mistakes

Waithe’s desire to see more diversity behind the camera is a stance that Schachter staunchly agrees with, recalling one incident between two Black actors and a white female director.

As she tells it, during an intimate scene, a white director asked the talent to do something that wasn’t authentic to how Black people show tenderness to each other. Schachter was instantly faced with a quandary.

“At the time I asked myself was it my role to help them,” she says. “And then I realized it absolutely was.”

Intimacy coordinators arguably have a lot of say on set, and for some, that sort of power could seem enticing. But Schachter warns that her job is less about bossing people around and more about making sure everyone feels empowered to set healthy boundaries. 

Cast members of The Chi (Photo: Showtime)

“We want people who are warm and have a sincere enthusiasm for helping people,” she explains.

Those who take part in Hillman Grad’s new program have to go through an extensive year-long, “trauma-informed” training that involves them shadowing working coordinators and then being shadowed themselves.

“That doesn’t mean that we are mental health professionals,” Schachter clarifies. “It’s having a background and an understanding of how trauma works in the brain and the body, and how it stays with us, and just what it looks like when someone’s triggered. Then, we’re mental health first aid certified. We’re not mental health professionals, but we are trauma-informed.”

When we discussed Waithe’s Showtime hit The Chi and previous allegations of misconduct against actor Jason Mitchell, who is no longer on the show, Schachter points out that incidents like that just underline why this new initiative is so necessary.

Had a trained intimacy coordinator been on set when those allegations were made, she believes they would have been able to flag any issues early on and taken the reins to, “make sure everyone on set felt safe and heard.”

That level of clarity and accountability is perhaps what is most compelling about this initiative by Hillman Grad. They learned a difficult lesson in the public spotlight. But instead of just putting a bandaid on the issue, they’re essentially doing reconstructive surgery to address it at the root. 

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As a result, all types of creatives — particularly Black, brown, and LGBTQIA+ ones who often get the short end of the stick — will finally have an advocate by their side making sure they are shown the same level of respect and dignity as everyone else. 

Blue Telusma is a Senior Writer at theGrio, whose viral think pieces have been featured on CNN, HuffPost, Buzzfeed, USA Today, BET and several other national news outlets. Her work mainly focuses on dissecting pop culture, promoting emotional intelligence and fostering activism through the arts.

Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric

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