How Jennifer Ward-Lealand is safeguarding Kiwi actors with intimacy coordination

Jessica Satherley
How Jennifer Ward-Lealand is safeguarding Kiwi actors with intimacy coordination
Jennifer Ward-Lealand is also the president of Equity New Zealand

She’s the president of Equity New Zealand, an actor, a director, a teacher and most recently an intimacy coordinator. 

Jennifer Ward-Lealand's 37-year career has spanned each facet of the performing arts community, leading her to win a Women of Influence Award in the Arts and Culture category. 

She is one of the pioneers of the film industry’s fastest-growing job, as an intimacy coordinator, which sees her working on both New Zealand and American-based productions. 

The role of an intimacy coordinator is to coordinate the physically intimate scenes between actors, much like a stunt coordinator, to make sure the actors are comfortable and safe from any physical or mental trauma. 

“I started training as an intimacy coordinator in 2018,” Jennifer Ward-Lealand said. 

“In 2015, we at Equity NZ held a meeting with our actors because anecdotally we had heard about appalling experiences for actors during auditions and on stage and screen in regard to scenes of an intimate nature. 

“It became clear that there we no guidelines for actors, so we started to create them, and we were really the first union in the world to bring about the guidelines specifically for actors that weren’t written in contract speak.   

“I was then contacted by Ita O’Brien, a very well-known intimacy coordinator in the UK, and she wanted to expand on the guidelines, so we started a working relationship together and it was then that I realised what a game changer it was for actors.  

“It took away all of the weirdness, and sometimes yuckiness of doing those scenes.  

“It makes them very professional and there’s a process which puts in place a structure where you can bring the physical beats and emotional beats of those moments together and make a seamless moment that is creative.  

“I realised then that I had to do this work because I want to change actors lives for the better. 

“Given that our mental health statistics are not good, it seemed crucial to me that this should be one of the things that we focus on.  

“It is one of the biggest growing jobs in the entertainment industry and I do believe that in a couple of years we’ll be saying, what were we even thinking not using people for these roles.  

“For stunt coordinators we devote resources, we have rehearsals, gear, health and safety to make sure that the actor is safe, but we’ve never done any of that for intimate scenes. 

“But this is where the actor is the most exposed and the most vulnerable and the risk for physical and psychological damage is big,” she says. 

Another one of Jennifer Ward-Lealand's most rewarding career moments is seeing her students graduate each year from The Actor’s Program. 

“We formed a group for the new drama school in 2009 and we’re just about to take our ninth intake, so to see 16 students come out, after having an extraordinary year, is a real highlight,” she says. 

In terms of her own acting highlights, she credits her role as Darcy in the 2018 NZ feature film Vermilion as one of her favourite characters. 

“It’s great to get a lead role in a movie when you’re over 50, they're rare as hen’s teeth,” she says. 

“I do still think there is a dearth of great roles for women and older women get far less roles than older men.  

“And television in general is skewed to the younger demographic, people are not so happy with seeing older people on stage, so I don’t think women are truly represented enough on stage and on screen in particular.  

“But I'm definitely starting to see a change for the better. 

“In terms of pay equality, I think there pretty much is in theatre, and acting itself is a non sex specific job so we expect women and men to do equally as well,” she says. 

The humble actor says it was an honour and inspiring to be nominated alongside a group of powerhouse women at the Women of Influence Awards recently. 

"Hearing other people’s stories in areas that I had no idea about, like in the rural area, business, and global was an honour. 

“The quality of women we have in this country, and what they’re doing is inspiring,” she said. 

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