‘Tell Me You Love Me’: A Different Kind of Real Sex for HBO

[IMG:L]HBO’s series are all about taking traditional TV out of its comfort zones.

The Sopranos and Deadwood broke barriers of profane language and brutal violence; Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm bust the envelope of relationships and social comfort in comedy: Six Feet Under and Big Love pushed the boundaries of mortality, morality and so-called “normal” family dynamics; and now the cable network’s latest offering, Tell Me You Love Me, takes the sexual frontier and intimacy issues to the edge.

The show chronicles three couples in various stages of crises in their sex lives. Instead of cutting away at the sex scenes, Tell Me You Love Me explores the drama within them. As such, it achieves so much realism that many journalists wondered if the actors were actually engaging in some form of intercourse. Creator Cynthia Mort lamented having to answer such questions.

“They are actors first,” said Mort. “They will not ask anything of themselves nor will I ask anything of them that they’re uncomfortable doing. They’re actors. They are committed to those characters. Sonya [Walger] is not going to put her hands in a place that she shouldn’t be. And I think that’s appropriate. They are actors first. They do their work first. That’s what they do, and I think they did it beautifully. I think they do.”

Of course, common sense suggests that if they can fake Forrest Gump meeting dead presidents, flying superheroes and ancient Sparta, they can certainly fake a sex scene. Why not just say, “Of course they’re not f*cking. Are you crazy?” Mort feels even the negative answer justifies the question too much.

“Because this question is ridiculous,” she says. “I just think the question is so silly.”

Her actresses, on the other hand, had to contain themselves. They wanted to assure everyone that they were professionals. Michelle Borth, who plays the young fiancé in doubt Jamie, even gave some journalists the negative answer on which Mort took the high ground.

“I was really adamant about it because you go about a sex scene you go about any other scene that you’re going to do,” said Borth. “Whether it’s a really dramatic scene or it’s a fighting scene, it’s the same exact way. To imply that we were having sex is offensive in the sense that we’re not porn stars. We’re hired actors.”

Then Borth softened her stance: “Actually, I’m flattered they asked me if we’re really having sex because that means I really did my job. We made the scene look real. You should do that going into every single scene that you do, whether it’s a sex scene or whatever it may be.” 

Ally Walker plays Katie, a long married mom who has not been sexual with her husband for quite some time. She reminded viewers that the purpose of the show’s sex is to address deeper issues.

“This is an exploration of real intimacy, and sex happens to be a part of real intimacy between people,” said Walker. “It’s not the melodramatic of ‘I love you.’ It’s not always to the bases. It’s that this is really the real deal and I think what all of us liked about this script and about these scripts, they really explore the intimacy in between people. Sex does happen to be a part of that, but it’s not gratuitous and it’s not phony and it’s staged accordingly. So it has a very real feeling which I think does kind of upset some people, but at least for me, it didn’t seem gratuitous and it didn’t make me nervous.” 

Sonya Walger plays Carolyn, a woman so obsessed with getting pregnant that her relationship suffers. Sex is a vital aspect of that process, and the show uses it to portray her character flaws.

“I understand but don’t necessarily share Carolyn’s single mindedness,” Walger said. “I’m delighted to say that I’m not quite obsessive as she is, but I am in different ways so I don’t know. I love Carolyn. I really do. I understand her. I’m not like her necessarily in a lot of ways but I love her humor and I love her trying to come together with her husband. I think if you’re very single-minded as my character is, who’s a very ambitious woman, I think it can get muddled with a need to succeed and stop becoming a need to have a baby. I think that’s what happens to them is they lose sight of what they’re doing.”

With three different stages of relationships at play, Mort is tackling issues that just don’t make it into mainstream entertainment. There are plenty of sitcoms joking about sexless marriages, baby comedies about funny cravings or big fat wedding movies about event planning, but Tell Me You Love Me won’t let viewers off that easy.

“I think it’s in many ways, nobody wants to talk about not having sex in long term relationships,” said Mort. “Number one, no one will admit it. No one ever talks about it. Everybody lies about it. Everybody jokes about it but to really get in there and look at what happens between two people in that day-in and day-out intimacy is a different kind of creative endeavor. It requires amazing actors, and we were very, very lucky. Without the actors that we had, I know the show wouldn’t be what it is. They were able to take this material, that’s not easy material and consistently, week after week, be true to the characters that we created. I was really lucky.”

Though it may require the actors to go to painful places every day, dealing with issues they may relate to themselves, they are all committed to addressing the issues for our entertainment. Walger felt the social importance of Tell Me You Love Me.

“I think intimacy is the last taboo in many ways,” Walger said. “Not sex, not violence but the actual language and idiom of how a couple speaks to each other. In the nondramatic terms without anyone screwing the nanny, without anyone dying, but in the just tiny nuanced way of how a relationship stays and evolves or doesn’t get stuck in its status. I think nobody’s doing that. Nobody’s ever done that, certainly not with the compassion that Cynthia writes.”

Kids may still stay up late to sneak a peak at the naked ladies on HBO, but they will be in for some harsh lessons about things to come. Perhaps if Tell Me You Love Me can educate the masses, a new generation will grow up better able to deal with common relationship problems.

“I think what’s great about this show is you can learn from it,” said Borth. “You really can learn from it and that’s why I think it’s great. It is heavy. It does bring you to a certain place but at the same time, it has these moments where I really think you can learn a ton from the show.”

Tell Me You Love Me premieres September 9 on HBO.