Ciera Payton had just turned 18 when she was cast in a lead role opposite Steven Seagal in the 2007 film “Flight of Fury.” It was her first professional acting job, and filming would take place in Romania.
But before sending her to set, neither the film’s producers nor her agent showed her the full script, Payton says. So it wasn’t until halfway through her flight that the sophomore at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts read the screenplay for the first time and discovered a scene in which a character comes out of the shower naked.
“I was like, ‘That’s my character,’ ” she says. “My heart began pounding.” She would also be performing a sex scene with another woman.
When she stepped off the plane, knowing no one else on set and without enough money to even place an international phone call, Payton decided to go straight to the top: She mustered up her courage and approached Seagal in his trailer. After thanking him for the opportunity, she explained that she hadn’t been informed about the expected nude scene, and she wasn’t comfortable performing it.
“He’s kind of sitting there,” says Payton, “and he’s trying to think of what to say, and he goes, ‘You won’t even show your tits?’ ”
The actor sent Payton outside and gathered some of the other on-set higher-ups into his trailer, all of whom were male. Then he called Payton back in to question her. Was she really not going to perform the nude scenes? Wouldn’t she just take her top off? “At one point,” says Payton, “somebody in the room is just like, ‘You know, we stuck our neck out to hire you for this.’ ”
Women in the film and television industry are frequently pressured to perform nude or nearly nude scenes, experiencing everything from subtle coercion to threats and verbal abuse at the hands of directors or producers. In a December 2017 New York Times essay, Salma Hayek said the disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein threatened to shut down production on the 2002 film “Frida” if she didn’t appear fully nude in a sex scene with another woman. Other well-known actresses, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Debra Messing, have gone public with similar ordeals involving different men (Parker did not end up doing the scene).
Often, as with these now-famous women, as well as the women The Washington Post interviewed for this story, the strong-arming happens early in a performer’s career, when they have little to no influence on-set and are working to establish themselves in the industry. Some reported worrying they would get a reputation for being “difficult” if they said no to the requests. Others feared being replaced, fired or put on an industry blacklist. Still more felt cornered or frightened in the moment and agreed to go along with the demands in order to make the coercion end.
Actresses have spoken about these events throughout the years, but it’s not until now, with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements working to combat sexual misconduct and fight for true gender equality, that their concerns are being taken more seriously.
“It happens to everyone,” says Loan Dang, a partner at the Los Angeles-based entertainment law firm Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano. “The actor gets pressured into doing something they don’t feel comfortable with. Everyone says, ‘You’re holding stuff up, can you make a decision?’ You’re with these people on-set, you work with them, so then you think, ‘Oh God, how do I say no?’ ”
“It feels surprisingly like high school, like peer pressure,” adds actress Alysia Reiner (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Better Things”) who was made to perform a sex scene that was not part of the original script early in her career. “Particularly as a young actor, there is this fear of, ‘I will get fired, and I need this job.’ There’s this feeling of being easily replaceable.”
Hollywood wasn’t always so fixated on nudity. For several decades in the early half of the 20th century, the industry was self-censored via regulations known as the Motion Picture Production Code. Around the mid- to late-1950s, those regulations eased and films began to depict actors in various states of undress.
But those depictions were never spread equally between men and women. By 2016, 25.6 percent of speaking or named female characters in the year’s top-grossing 100 fictional films were depicted heavily exposed (such as “chest/cleavage, midriff or high upper thigh thigh”), partially nude or nude as compared with 9.2 percent of men, according to research done by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. These figures have were relatively consistent in the decade since 2006.
SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents film and television actors, includes a nudity clause in its collective bargaining agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. In addition to other requirements, producers must alert performers to any expected nude scenes or sex scenes before their audition, obtain separate written consent from the actor for any such scenes and enforce a closed set when filming the scenes.
These rules are the bare minimum, says Dang. “People who have representation will negotiate beyond that.”
For her clients — who range from household names to lesser-known performers — Dang typically asks for a handful of other protections. Those may include an in-depth conversation between the director and her client about the scene, the ability for her client to review footage after filming the scene and the destruction of any footage from the scene that isn’t going to be used. Her negotiations also include explicit detail about what will and will not be shown onscreen, from nipples to pubic hair to shots of an actor’s backside.
But even with these protections in place, some directors or producers push for more explicit performances once actors arrive on-set. If actors alert SAG-AFTRA to such behavior, a union representative is supposed to intervene. SAG-AFTRA also employs representatives tasked with visiting sets to ensure compliance, but with thousands of productions happening every year, the union does not have enough personnel to send to each location. Producers and directors are expected to abide by the rules in good faith — and not all of them do. (SAG-AFTRA declined to comment on the record for this story).
“Despite the fact that SAG has all these rules, despite the fact that [actors] have attorneys and have negotiated . . . they get to the set and the actor is asked to do something beyond what’s been agreed to,” says Dang.
Benita Robledo, an actress turned director who has had roles on “Gossip Girl,” the CW’s “Teen Wolf” and 2008’s “What Happens in Vegas,” says she experienced intimidation similar to Payton’s on the set of 2016’s “Dependent’s Day.” While filming the largely improvised independent feature film, she spent hours each day with her director and co-star working out dialogue and scenes. So when the director, Michael David Lynch, suggested they do a full frontal nude scene, Robledo says she felt comfortable telling him in no uncertain terms that she didn’t want to do it.
But, she says, upon her refusal, Lynch became demanding, telling her the scene depicted something “real” and the movie needed to be authentic. He eventually agreed to film two versions of the scene — one that framed the shot without exposing her — and promised to give her approval on the final version. It wasn’t until several months later, though, when Robledo was in a theater full of people for the film’s first screening, that she saw his final cut, she says. “I see myself huge, 50 feet high, completely naked.”
Deciding she could not go through with a release of the film in its current iteration, Robledo emailed Lynch to let him know. He called her back, she says, and began berating her. “He’s screaming at me that I’m stealing his movie from him, and he says, ‘You shouldn’t be upset, because guys were asking me at the screening for your number because they wanted to f--- you.’”
After several months, Lynch agreed to reshoot the approximately 30-second scene with Robledo wearing a T-shirt. She was so disturbed by his behavior, though, that she opted out of appearing publicly in support of the film, despite winning an award for best actress at the Hill Country Film Festival in Texas.
She says, “I will never know what I missed out on by not doing press,” which can be an important opportunity for actors to network, get publicity and meet industry insiders.
When reached for comment, Lynch denied the allegations, stating that the nude scene in question was in the script, that Robledo “wanted to do it” and that her recollection of his statements are inaccurate. “During the creative process,” he says, “there are always going to be emotional conversations and disagreements.”
A standard of aggressive on-set behavior has been defined not only by men like Weinstein, but also by directors who have been told that they are auteurs and can therefore behave in any way they see fit in service of their vision.
“In terms of people that throw their weight around set, the stories are a mile deep,” says a Los Angeles-based talent manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his clients from being wrongly implicated. “There is just a level of appalling personal behavior — bullying, yelling, ridiculousness — that would not happen in a lot of other [professional] settings.”
“Once you are on set, the only thing that’s precious is the director’s vision,” says Robledo. “It’s all that matters. Everyone is hustling to make that work; grips, wardrobe, everyone. If you’re not playing along, then you’re the a--hole.”
On film sets that aren’t regulated by SAG-AFTRA, coerced nudity can be an even bigger problem. Many women interviewed said they had experienced sexual misconduct on such sets. And their experiences with nude scenes follow a pattern: An actress reaches a verbal agreement with a director or producer, but it goes out the window once cameras begin rolling.
Actress and filmmaker Croix Provence says she was working on a non-union film in 2012 when she was coerced into taking off a nude-colored swimsuit for a shower scene after the director explicitly agreed that she could be covered. She recalled the director telling her things like, “There’s no way around it, it’s ruining the shot. Can you just be cooperative?”
Another actress, Amber Sealey, says she was pressured by a director to perform a sex scene in 1997 with a man who, only months before, sexually assaulted her. “I explained what had happened, and the director was like, ‘Well, that’s not really a big deal,’ ” she says.
Writer and actress Tatiana Paris says she was coerced into taking her clothes off during a sex scene on the set of a short film in 2011 after reaching a verbal and written agreement with the director establishing that she would not perform nude. During the scene, the actor with whom she was performing began hitting her on the backside and continued even after she asked him to stop. The cameras kept rolling. Later, when the crew gathered to watch footage from that day, Paris says one of the assistant directors turned to the rest of the group and asked, “Does anyone else feel like we just watched a girl get raped?”
Whether actors are protected by the union or not, they don’t have much recourse if they bare more than they want to, regardless of the reason. That’s because nudity contracts can be amended, says Dang, and a verbal, on-the-spot agreement is tantamount to legal consent.
For that reason, some industry insiders are pushing for a system in which an advocate would be present on-set during filming of nude scenes or sex scenes. That person could be an agent or manager, a friend or a person assigned by SAG-AFTRA who would intervene if an actor is asked to do something he or she hasn’t agreed to.
Reiner says she has informally had co-conspirators who helped her avoid on-set coercion, including a female co-star in one case and a male co-star in another. She would like to see such allies become required.
“My experience is that having an advocate on-set is everything,” says Reiner. “I think it would go a long, long way.”
Dang agrees. The advocate would “have the contract in front of them, and say, ‘By the way, stop.’ That could be an immediate solution. . . . It’s something that you can do today.”
In the meantime, women who have already experienced such violations have had to advocate for themselves. When Payton’s post-shower scene in “Flight of Fury” was finally filmed, she persuaded on-set higher-ups to let her wear a negligee rather than appear nude.
Producers of “Flight of Fury” did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Seagal also has not been available for comment, and Anthony Falangetti, an attorney for Seagal, said, “It appears based upon Ms. Payton’s assertions, that she did not have to do anything she didn’t want to do.”
Still, she was pushed far beyond her comfort zone; she was clothed for the sex scene with her female co-star, but their interaction was graphic, and it was choreographed by the same all-male team that pressured her to perform topless.
“They are choreographing, ‘Suck her breast here, kiss her there, pull her hair back,” says Payton. “And they keep saying, ‘Remember what you’re doing, that’s good, that’s good.’ It was so creepy. . . . I just felt really [terrible], and very powerless.”
It took Payton, who has since gone on to appear on “Californication,” “Ballers” and “The Walking Dead,” a long time to come to terms with what happened. “To be reduced to some sex toy or something, none of that feels good,” she says.
She’s speaking up now in the hopes that others won’t have to go through what she went through.
“Women are taught to just not say anything,” she says. “I’m choosing to join the conversation.”