EXCLUSIVE​Sleazy truth about what REALLY happens in TV sex scenes: I had to do degrading kisses, talk dirty in front of TV execs and meet my 'rapist' for the first time on set while starring in everything from Byker Grove to Casualty

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 My third audition for a film role as a young shop girl. There are ten people in the room, only one is a woman. At this stage in the process the bigwigs who approve the budget get their say-so too.

The scene I am reading contains a certain amount of sexual tension, but still I feel a jolt of shock when the casting director tells me to put down the script and instead improvise a monologue.

He wants me to ‘talk dirty’ – in front of everyone.

I flush bright red. But I do it. Not because I want to, but because I feel as though I have to. Then he asks me to do it again, and again, to ad lib sexual banter in a room full of strangers.

I am 22 years old. I do not get the part.

No matter how it appears on screen, the mechanics of kissing for the camera is never sexy, says Holly Matthews

No matter how it appears on screen, the mechanics of kissing for the camera is never sexy, says Holly Matthews

In Waterloo Road, Holly had to perform a drunken striptease, then lift up another girl’s shirt

In Waterloo Road, Holly had to perform a drunken striptease, then lift up another girl’s shirt

A young Holly with co-stars Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly in children's show Byker Grove

A young Holly with co-stars Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly in children’s show Byker Grove

That was two decades ago, and some people might think it crossed a line, even edged close to abuse. It’s why the latest debate in Hollywood about the mistreatment of actors in the film and TV industry, especially during the casting process, resonates so powerfully with me.

In a succession of magazine interviews, women have called out a culture which not only in the recent past, but still today, seems to revel in making female actors do things they don’t want to do – in auditions, rehearsals and on camera itself.

First came the Devil Wears Prada star Anne Hathaway who, back in April, recounted her experience in the 2000s of having to ‘test chemistry’ by kissing a parade of potential co-stars during auditions.

Anne Hathaway recounted her experience in the 2000s of having to 'test chemistry' by kissing a parade of potential co-stars during auditions

Anne Hathaway recounted her experience in the 2000s of having to ‘test chemistry’ by kissing a parade of potential co-stars during auditions

Nicole Kidman discussed similarly auditioning for ‘sexual chemistry’ and said the experience made her feel deeply uncomfortable

Nicole Kidman discussed similarly auditioning for ‘sexual chemistry’ and said the experience made her feel deeply uncomfortable

‘I was told, ‘We have ten guys coming today and you’re cast. Aren’t you excited to make out with all of them?’ And I thought, ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ Because I wasn’t excited. I thought it sounded gross.’

In response to Hathaway’s recollection, Jennifer Aniston, Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman discussed similarly auditioning for ‘sexual chemistry’ with co-stars in an issue of Hollywood Reporter magazine last month, describing the experience as ‘mortifying’, ‘lazy’ and ‘very uncomfortable’. 

In another magazine interview earlier this year, Emily Blunt was asked if she’d ever felt ‘sick’ having to kiss some of her male co-stars. ‘Absolutely, absolutely. I wouldn’t say it’s extreme loathing, but I’ve definitely not enjoyed some of it,’ she replied.

In an issue of Hollywood Reporter magazine last month, Jennifer Aniston decribed aspects of the casting process as 'mortifying'

In an issue of Hollywood Reporter magazine last month, Jennifer Aniston decribed aspects of the casting process as ‘mortifying’

Keira Knightley is calling on creative organisations to help fund a new body to investigate complaints in the music, film, theatre and TV industries

Keira Knightley is calling on creative organisations to help fund a new body to investigate complaints in the music, film, theatre and TV industries

In a further development this week, high-profile British actors and directors called for a bullying ‘watchdog’ for the film industry. An open letter, signed by Ruth Wilson, Keira Knightley, Naomie Harris, Carey Mulligan and Emerald Fennell, asked creative organisations to help fund a new body, the Creative Industry Independent Standards Authority (Ciisa), to investigate complaints in the music, film, theatre and TV industries.

‘Bullying and harassment claims in the industry continue abound,’ the letter said, adding that many would love an outside overseer ‘to hold people accountable for the bad behaviour or bad practices that sometimes happen on our sets, on our stages, behind the scenes’.

I too would have loved such a body. As a young female actor back in the 2010s, I was very used to being put up as ‘the love interest’, meaning my acting ability was often judged not on my emotional range or vocal skills but on how ‘hot’ the action was between me and the, invariably male, star.

As well as appearances on hit BBC shows Casualty and Doctors, I took roles in a number of low-budget films. I went to dozens of auditions and appeared in hours of dramas which required lots of kissing and simulated sex. Much of it felt awkward and a great deal, especially in rehearsals, was unnecessary.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that even in those dramas in which I played a schoolgirl, early in my career, I was sometimes asked to do overtly sexual things.

I started playing Emma Miller in Byker Grove at the age of 11 and, over my seven years in that show, I had to kiss a number of different characters, the first when I was just 14. Thankfully I’d already had a kiss in real life, though a lot of my child actor colleagues did have their first kiss on screen.

I’m sure there were times when the script writers were brainstorming storylines, saying: ‘Who hasn’t ever got it together? Let’s put them together now…’ But it was something I was never truly comfortable with. I can see it is part and parcel of being an actor, but with hindsight, of course, we were still children and portraying parts of life we ourselves did not always understand.

In one kissing scene when I was 15 and my male counterpart was 15 or 16, the male director micro-managed the scene down to choreographing the kiss itself. ‘I know she is a girl and it’s awful to kiss girls but just do your best,’ he told the actor playing opposite me. The director has all the power in these situations and this one happened to be gay, which I believe was why he spoke over me like that. It made me feel embarrassed and foolish, as though I was something horrible to kiss.

‘Go in for the kiss, pull away, hard kiss, pull away, then passionate,’ he said to us. I was utterly mortified. The fact I can remember it with such clarity today, 23 years later, must mean it still bothers me.

I was older on BBC drama series Waterloo Road, although of course my character wasn’t. In one scene I had to perform a drunken striptease, then lift up another girl’s shirt. The scene was directed as though I’d pulled her breasts out, but you never saw any skin; the gesture was implied. It was shot on a closed set meaning non-essential crew weren’t allowed in the studio and couldn’t look at monitors either.

On this occasion, although there was a sexualised element, I was made to feel comfortable.

Of course, I’m not arguing against depictions of kissing or sex on film – romantic side-plots occur in nine out of ten movies. But I do think we’ve had enough of the random, shoehorned – and often very overt – sexualisation of female characters.

Jodie Foster goes one step further in the Hollywood Reporter. She says it’s sexual violence that appears far too often, and that assault and rape are used to define female characters in lazy, disturbing ways.

‘For most of my career, I was always shocked that so many of the scripts that I read, the entire motivation for the female character was that she had been traumatised by rape,’ says Foster. ‘She’s kind of in a bad mood, yeah, there’s definitely some rape in her past… Rape or molestation seemed to be the one kind of lurid big emotional backstory that [male screenwriters] could understand in women.’

I played a rape victim in Casualty and, though I had a decent director who was protective of actors, I didn’t meet my ‘attacker’ before the scene was filmed. The director made sure we only did one take of my attack, on a closed set at 1am on a cobbled street and, yes, as I was pushed up against a wall by the actor playing my rapist, it did indeed feel menacing.

There are certain unwritten TV acting rules, such as you don’t generally need to kiss in rehearsals and using ‘tongue’ is really unnecessary unless it is integral to the scene.

Yet I have been on sets when men have ignored this latter rule. When I was younger I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to cause a fuss. I was the walking definition of a people pleaser and didn’t want to offend anyone. Besides, it was down to me to ensure the audience believed the chemistry playing out before them, wasn’t it?

In those days I had my heart set on Hollywood and, to that end, throughout my 20s I took audition after audition for low-budget movies in the hope one would break through and launch my career in the US. But if I’d had a couple of iffy experiences in TV, I had no idea what awaited me in the world of film.

The big cheeses behind the scenes like to bluster ‘it’s only acting’. But after two decades in the industry, I have seen first-hand that, at times, it really is about what they can get away with.

In one audition, within seconds of meeting my male co-star, he and I were horizontal on the ground in intimate contact with one another. When I asked the director if we had to kiss, I heard, ‘yeah, yeah keep going’. A dozen people ogled us under the studio’s fluorescent lighting.

In situations like this you don’t discuss the kiss beforehand; it’s just accepted you go for it and we did. Just like you’d kiss someone in ‘real life’. I found myself learning how to disassociate. How to leave my body and go through the motions physically so that it looked as though I was present when I wasn’t. The purest definition of acting, perhaps, but also the way people tend to deal with a situation when they very definitely don’t fancy the person with whom they are locked in a clinch.

We didn’t get the role on that occasion; the director went with a ‘couple’ with a very different ‘look’.

No matter how it appears on screen, the mechanics of kissing for the camera is never sexy. I think this is what Emily Blunt meant. We should truly admire the acting skills of women required to be steamy and sensual onscreen, for none of it will be real at all.

Asked if she’d ever felt ‘sick’having to kiss some of her male co-stars Emily Blunt replied:  ‘Absolutely, absolutely. I’ve definitely not enjoyed some of it’

Asked if she’d ever felt ‘sick’having to kiss some of her male co-stars Emily Blunt replied:  ‘Absolutely, absolutely. I’ve definitely not enjoyed some of it’ 

Growing up in Newcastle, I didn’t come from an acting family – dad was a welder and mum worked in a bank. I had no one to point out red flags to me or tell me where the pitfalls lay.

On another film I successfully auditioned for, the producer called me afterwards to say he had exciting news. He had written an additional scene for me where I’d be having sex in a swimming pool. I was to bring my bikini to the shoot, ready to simulate having a one-night stand in the water.

I was 19 years old and naively said yes to filming it, but it should have rung alarm bells.

What on earth was I thinking? In the end, the production didn’t happen because the funding dried up, but it shows how vulnerable I was.

Years later that producer texted me when I was married. I opened the message to read: ‘Hey Sexy, thinking of you.’ In any other workplace this wouldn’t be acceptable. But in the acting industry the lines are so blurred, such a message isn’t thought inappropriate – or wasn’t ten years ago.

Indeed, some of the scripts I read were little more than soft porn dressed up as an ‘edgy’ thriller or gangland caper. I’m convinced they were written by men who wanted to see their fantasy sex scenes made real. These were films with funding and distribution deals. No one was going to win an Oscar, but they were legitimate movies. More than once I asked myself: ‘Why does my character need to be naked in this scene?’ And the answer was almost always ‘no reason at all’. It was routine to read a script where you’d be strutting around without a stitch on, or engaged in heavily passionate sex.

Naomi Watts was among the Hollywod stars to brand the search for sexual chemistry with co-stars lazy

Naomi Watts was among the Hollywod stars to brand the search for sexual chemistry with co-stars lazy 

I did one scene in a film and it required a lesbian kiss with one of the other characters, who was played by the woman who was also producing the movie. You’d think a girl-on-girl kiss would be easier, perhaps, but no. She was utterly standoff-ish with me and the whole experience left me feeling very uncomfortable.

At the age of 26, I got married to a man who had nothing to do with the acting industry. Ross was a property developer and promotional model – we met modelling for the drinks brand Pimm’s. A year later, in 2012, I was working on Casualty, had a few film parts coming in and had been booked for one movie as a footballer’s wife, which, yes, was another sexualised role. But then Ross was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour. There was this shift in my mindset – Hollywood, acting and my career were no longer important. I gave up work to support him. Ross died two years later when our daughters Brooke and Texas were six and four.

People assume as a parent you push your kids to get into the industry and, while my eldest wants to become an actor, I’m hesitant. Even if some films – if they have the budget – employ intimacy coaches nowadays, there’s no chance I would let my daughter be on her own on set; I’ve seen too much to let that happen and I don’t think enough has changed.

For the last decade I’ve run a successful coaching business called The Happy Me Project. Yet four years ago I dipped my toe back into the water with a small part in a short film. In 2022 I appeared in a comedy series for Amazon called Keep Calm And Carry On, a mockumentary about lockdown (and no, there wasn’t any kissing in it). A return to acting feels like it might be fun, but only – only – if the sex scenes are done on my terms.

iamhollymatthews.com