As the writer, producer, and lead actress of my web series, Brains, I often feel like I have too much power. Part of this comes from lingering insecurity, worrying that I’m being selfish by asking friends and friends of friends to spend ten hours a day for several weekends in a row bringing to life a bizarre passion project about a girl and her apocalypse-proof libido. However, that’s nothing compared to the discomfort I felt when I wrote, cast and acted in a scene requiring a kiss.
If I had to rate the kisses in Brains on the Scoville Pepper Scale, season one would get a Pepperoncini and season two would graduate to perhaps a Guajillo. Tame by most Hollywood standards, but downright naughty when you add in the absolutely gross amount of influence I had over the situation.
I first spoke with my two unlucky kiss-scene partners, Jean Perez and Marshall Taylor Thurman, for the perspective of the non-writer actors:
“When I first get a script and I see a kissing/love scene, knowing the writer is also the actor, I ask myself if the scene feels true to both characters, as well as to the story as whole,” says Marshall, “If so, then I can trust, while doing the scene, the writer and my fellow actor usually has no motive other than to tell the story.”
Jean agrees, adding that while ordinarily he has a full conversation about boundaries and expectations with his kissing scene partner, he didn’t feel it was necessary when he and I performed together. “[Bri] had this authority and ‘know what you're doing’ approach so I just went along with it...Usually, when it's with the writer, in my opinion, I think it's easier because they know what they wrote and what they want. It's like having a cheat code with you because If you have any questions about the characters or their relationship just turn to your actor.”
Both actors, in a stunning turn of events, maintain that the most important part of any kissing or love scene, regardless of who your scene partner is, is communication. This sentiment is echoed by the writers as well.
I also interviewed Kate Hackett @HackettKate (writer, star: Classic Alice and Kate and Joe Just Want To Have Sex), Amanda Taylor (Writer, star: Lilly Evans and the Eleventh Hour), Claire Graham (writer, star: All or Nothing), Tiffany Tong (writer, star: Retail Rejects), and Jack Tracy (writer, director, star: History @HistoryWebs ), to discuss the various complexities of writing and then starring in your own romance scenes.
Bri: What was the steaminess rating of your scene/scenes using the extremely technical Scoville Pepper Scale?
Kate Hackett: Depends on the show. For Kate & Joe, we were probably up around Fatali. For Classic Alice, we were a bit tamer, probably more in the like Mulato range. Maybe Puya.
Amanda Taylor: Ain't no way I am rating my own kiss. But the way it was written, it was meant to be sweet with only a hint of spice.
Claire Graham: Our kiss was probably a cherry if even that.
Tiffany Tong: Charlie/Ella scenes we wanted to keep more adorable than charged because they’re just getting to know each other so probably Tabasco. Grande/Venti scenes matched their character’s more mature relationship, perhaps Birds Eye.
Jack Tracy: Jamaican Hot to Trinidad Scorpion, which are now and forever the code names I will use on the call list when it's sex scene day. Although, I should say that I strongly discourage handling peppers the day of a sex scene, for reasons that should be obvious.
Did you know who your scene partner would be when you first wrote the scene?
Kate Hackett: For Kate & Joe, yeah. We wrote them together. For Classic Alice, Tony [Noto] & I didn’t kiss until the second season. At that point, I knew him. I didn’t know when I wrote the first season that it’d be him — hell, I didn’t know if we were gonna get to the kiss even!
Oh, wait, I kissed more than just Tony in CA.
Yes. Everyone was weird. It was super weird to kiss Chris, that was probably my most awkward one, both seasons. Our first kiss was weird and Tony was like LURKING OFF TO THE SIDE because he didn’t have anywhere to sit on set. The second one neither of us knew how like SEXY the kiss should be so we just kinda made it insanely sexy. Brent Bailey surprise-kissed me, I didn’t write that one in. I can’t remember if I actually kissed Paul, but his seduction scene was SUPER AWKWARD for both of us but when I reviewed the footage, it was like. Whoa, guys. Too hot. Too sexy. Whoa.
Amanda Taylor: I did not. Casting James Potter was one of the greater challenges of my life, and we didn't have anyone in mind when we were writing.
Claire Graham: I didn't know who I would be kissing or even if I would be Annie when we wrote the show. (In fact, I was hoping I wouldn't be. I love Annie, but I'm no actress) We had a few guys in mind to play Jack but we were also willing to change Jack's gender if we got a willing girl that had the time.
Jack Tracy: I didn't even know the series would be filmed, let alone by me and with me in it.
Did knowing who you’d be kissing change the way you wrote the scene?
Kate Hackett: After Classic Alice ended, I did promptly turn around and write something with absolutely ZERO kissing and ZERO romance (Not a Plan, with Chris O’Brien), for whatever that’s worth.
Tiffany Tong: No, we were confident the actors could handle whatever we threw their way.
Jack Tracy: No, but I was very conscious to walk the actor through the scene and blocking of what I was intending well in advance for his input and to gauge his level of comfort.
Did you know your scene partner prior to casting them in the kissing scene? Did that help or make it weirder?
Kate Hackett: Yeah, I knew both of them — I think it made it weirder for Kate & Joe than it did for Alice. By the time Tony & I kissed on set, we knew each other pretty well. And neither of us was married. Chris as well — Chris is my buddy, so that made it weird.
Amanda Taylor: I met Jon at a callback, and did a chemistry read with him. I think that might have been the most nervous I have ever been in my entire life. I couldn't eat for two days and I was seeing stars. Not because Jon Rose is intimidating (although he is very talented and wonderful) but because I felt immense pressure to make the James-and-Lily romance believable and enviable. When we got to the actual kiss, I completely panicked. Jon is very handsome and he was doing such an amazing job being James - and in writing the script and doing research about him I had fallen head-over-heels in love with James Potter. It was so hard to separate the two and remind myself it was just acting ... I couldn't do it!
Claire Graham: Alex went to Sam's college so I'd met him a few times and I always thought he was nice. I think not knowing him super well probably made it easier than if we had been closer.
Tiffany Tong: I did not know my scene partner prior to casting her. It didn’t affect the way I approached that scene or how I usually approach kissing scenes. They’re a part of what actors do and it’s not a huge deal if my scene partner and I feel safe and comfortable with each other.
Jack Tracy: Much like my single life, no, I knew nothing about the person whose hands were in my pants.
Did you ever second guess writing in a kiss (or more) for yourself? Have you ever intentionally written in more or more involved love scenes than you needed?
Kate Hackett: Absolutely I’ve second guessed it. WHAT IF PEOPLE THINK I’M WRITING THIS BECAUSE I JUST WANT PEOPLE TO THINK I’M KISSABLE???? And then you suck it up and get over it. I actually find myself scoffing a lot more when I write love triangles for myself. That’s NEVER happened to me — two guys want to date me at one time?! — to the point where I find it RIDICULOUS.
Amanda Taylor: We second guessed writing a kiss in "Lily Evans and the Eleventh Hour" because of the timing of their canon relationship - they didn't start dating until their seventh year, and our story was set in their sixth. But we decided if Lily was the one to take charge and kiss him first, it would sync up with our mission to make her more of an assertive character and we could keep it a secret from the others. The kisses were intended to be extremely purposeful and move the story along, not at all gratuitous. (Versus when I am directing and tell my actors to kiss like 6 more times than is scripted. heh.)
Claire Graham: I will always choose not to be involved in a romantic scene, but the story we wanted to tell needed a few.
Tiffany Tong: No, I’ve gotten used to writing for my characters and I see Charlie as someone separate from myself. I found in the past if I focus on the fact that I’ll be acting it out later then it would not serve our characters.
Jack Tracy: I mean, my scene partners have all been beautiful men so there's always the temptation to write more, but no, the scripts were all written before auditions and did not change. I didn't second guess writing the kissing/sex scenes as my show is about dating and, well, you can't really do a show about dating without it, but I did wonder whether I would get anyone who would want to do it considering our low-to-no budget.
Do you like writing kiss/love scenes? Do you like acting them? How do the two compare?
Kate Hackett: Writing — Sure, I don’t really think about it too much though. It just… is what it is! Acting — Oh yes. What other job lets you make out with a bunch of people? And I get to have that warm fuzzy first kiss feeling over and over and over, even when first kisses are long over. And it’s pretend, but it’s still fun.
Amanda Taylor: I absolutely love writing kisses. Writing a romantic scene that culminates in a kiss is so satisfying and sweet for me - and I'm not even necessarily a rom-com girl. I just love the banter and that great moment of "we have to kiss now there is no other choice!!!" Acting in them is always very weird for me but knowing how much I personally enjoy watching them I hope I'm bringing a sliver of that joy to an audience. So ultimately I'm just a big sappy romantic and I love it all.
Claire Graham: I'm not a particularly romantic person (bless my poor boyfriend for sticking with me anyway) so I don't think I'm very good at writing or acting them. I'd rather write cute flirting scenes than anything more explicit. I'd always rather write than act though.
Tiffany Tong: I like writing those scenes more than I like being in them because it’s easier to separate the actor version of myself from my character when I’m writing. Kissing scenes are not my favourite type of scene to act in but I don’t mind it when I have a scene partner that’s professional about it. I enjoy acting in those scenes that build up to it and the repercussions, the drama surrounding it all.
Jack Tracy: Writing it feels natural, you just write from your own experiences. Acting in them can be tricky only because I start the shoot by bending over backward to make sure my scene partner is completely comfortable before we even turn on the camera. Fortunately, I have been blessed to have very professional scene partners, but at first, I'm very conscious during the scene of his comfort level, which I then have to abandon to do my job as an actor.
Since writing your first of these scenes, did you ever make changes to the process based on your earlier experiences?
Amanda Taylor: Now that I've done it I think my main approach is to be more upfront about my nerves. Trying to play it cool never served anyone.
Claire Graham: I believe we filmed all of our kissing scenes in one day. Probably without watching them back because of the time restraint so we really didn't have time to rethink them. We didn't include as much direction on acting choices as we probably should have and if I could go back and rewrite the script, that's something I would definitely add.
Jack Tracy: Uh, I wrote more graphic ones for season 2? Cropping will be our friend in post because the dailies right now are bordering on pornography. So...I guess my experience was positive the first time around?
What are the best and worst parts about kissing/love scenes?
Kate Hackett: It’s awkward — there are like 7 people watching you, it’s easy to slip out of the moment and feel dumb. And watching yourself kiss after, when you’re going through takes? SO WEIRD. Best part? I dunno- it’s fun.
Amanda Taylor: The best part is when you do it right and your audience thinks it's adorable enough to GIF. The worst part is when you accidentally fall in love with your co-star, or the character they're playing. It doesn't matter which because they both have the same face. The face you have to kiss.
Claire Graham: Best part was that it wasn't awkward after, which is always something that scares me with stuff like this. The worst part was the stress beforehand.
Tiffany Tong: Best part- the audience reaction when they get that payoff of seeing the characters they ship finally kiss. Worst part- Timing when the first kiss occurs in the scripts so that it serves the characters’ arcs the most in the story.
Jack Tracy: For best, see above re "all my scene partners are beautiful men." Worst? Squeezing your junk into a sock because your underwear keeps showing up in frame? Or maybe when you get that inkling after a few takes from your scene partner of "do I really have to hump this dude again"? But that's a conversation between me and my therapist.
Do you ever feel like you have too much power?
Kate Hackett: Never. Serious answer: no. I have the amount of power I need to get the story we’re telling done; everyone is paid to work, and everyone should feel safe in their environment.
Amanda Taylor: Never. I especially make sure I don't write, act, and direct my own kissing scenes. I don't want that much control, and I want to make sure I get some input. I didn't even write that #jily kiss as an island - my co-writer Katie signed off on it. And we had a whole cohort of people giving us advice on that kiss. Yeep!
Claire Graham: "Dance puppets, dance!" I shout before laughing maniacally toward my actors…. Not really. I'm not very good at being in charge (despite being a teacher) so I tend to avoid power like the plague. I think working alongside Sam makes most things better, but with this, we shared the power and responsibility. We tried to share the work evenly-ish. I think having a co-director/writer/editor makes you more connected with the project. There is someone that you are sharing the project with and depending on the person that can only make it better.
Tiffany Tong: No
Jack Tracy: Yes.
Do you love that you have too much power?
Kate Hackett: ALWAYS.
Tiffany Tong: Haha
Jack Tracy: YAS.
Claire Graham: Power is the worst and I would be an absolute lemming if I didn't want to do so many things and if I didn't have so many wonderful people that push me to do more.
Any advice for other writers/actors and their likely-inevitable kissing scenes?
Kate Hackett: Just keep it professional & light hearted & fun. I’ve been in rape scenes; the writer and director were very comforting & available and that made everything go smoothly.
Amanda Taylor: Write it to be true to the story, not to give yourself an excuse to cast a certain person and then kiss them. It's not a real kiss. But make it look like one.
Claire Graham: My advice in pretty much every aspect of life is communication. Make sure everyone is on board with what they are expected to do. And don't take it too seriously.
Tiffany Tong: For writing, write to what you think is true for the characters. For acting, be considerate of the other person and be specific about what you are and aren’t comfortable with so there aren’t any unpleasant surprises.Talk to your scene partner prior to a kissing scene. Make sure you both feel safe and consent to what is expected in the script. Floss, brush, have some mints, stay hydrated.
If it’s a love scene then for the love of acting, bathe or shower before. No one wants to do a love scene with someone who smells like an armpit.
Jack Tracy: Real life love interest rules apply--communicate, communicate, communicate. Tell your scene partner before they even see the script what's involved, why you are filming it a certain way, and take them to the monitor between takes to make sure they are ok with how they are being filmed. Oh, and make sure they sign a contract specifically acknowledging their understanding of the nature of the photographs and video, the extent of their approval rights (if any) and who owns the captured material (you)...just in case.
Scott Mandel (left) and Jack Tracy in History
Claire Graham and Alex Berian in All or Nothing
Jon Rose and Amanda Taylor in Lily Evans and the Eleventh Hour.
Allie Pev (left) and Tiffany Tong in Retail Rejects.
Kate Hackett and Tony Noto in Classic Alice