In Red, White & Royal Blue, an unexpected fling goes from a playful secret to an intimate love story for Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez), the first son of the United States, and Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine), Britain’s spare.
Adapted from Casey McQuiston’s wildly popular new adult bestseller of the same name and written for the screen by co-writers Ted Malawer and Matthew López (who pulled double-duty as director), the film arrives just a year after a slew of notable (and often comedic) queer romance releases — including Fire Island, Bros, My Policeman and fellow Prime Video title Anything’s Possible — and amid several anticipated 2023 titles like Bottoms, Joy Ride and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
With the arrival of these films and Red, White & Royal Blue comes fuller depictions of not just queer identity and life, but also of intimacy. It’s a topic that has historically been taboo on U.S. screens (as represented by the Hays Code) and, following groundbreaking and normalizing depictions in series like The L Word, Queer as Folk and their continuations, has in recent years only begun to appear in major studio and streamer releases.
These depictions have also become a flash point issue for some LGBTQIA viewers. That tension is driven in part by how much queer sex in mainstream movies has historically been shaped by straight filmmakers who, through their choices, have established a cache of expectation that doesn’t always represent the diversity and authenticity of that intimacy.
That debate was encapsulated by the disparate takes on what kinds of sex should be more visible, offered up by stars of both My Policeman and Bros last year. “So much of gay sex in films is two guys going at it,” My Policeman star Harry Styles told Rolling Stone around the film’s release. “And it kind of removes the tenderness from it.”
But for Bros star Luke Macfarlane, that tenderness has become a go-to in Hollywood that can reduce queer sex to a single thing. “Sex doesn’t always have to be sentimental,” he told Yahoo! Entertainment while defending Bros raunchiness. “Especially in a lot of the queer movies that we’ve seen, sex is treated as a very sentimental thing because it was so frightening to people for a long time. But now we can actually have fun with that.”
In Red, White, & Royal Blue, director López — with the help of intimacy coordinator Robbie Taylor Hunt — builds a dynamic narrative around the growing feelings between his leading men. One that can feel both wild, spirited and slightly racy at one moment, and profoundly earnest and vulnerable in another. It’s the kind of work Taylor says the SAG-AFTRA strike can help open the door to seeing more of.
“With intimacy being taken more seriously and fully, SAG has been having conversations about making that a bit more embedded and, although there are lots of things that people aren’t agreeing on, this does seem to be something that is coming to the table and being understood,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And that shows part of the importance of the strike: That we’re getting these conversations happening and that we might see, post-strike, a greater inclusion of intimacy coordination, which will then trickle down not only into actor safety and their boundaries being respected, which is so important, but better representations of intimacy and sex onscreen.”
THR spoke to Hunt ahead of film’s Aug. 11 release on Prime Video about working with Red, White & Royal Blue‘s leading actors, how his and López’s shared background in theater aided his process, why sex is as much about character as it is about romance and why portraying queer sex onscreen has been somewhat complicated.
With your role still being relatively new on sets, how familiar and comfortable were the actors, in your opinion, coming into this?
They were just so lovely to work with. It’s so nice to come to it with a real sense of them being ready and respectful while having a sort of fun, playfulness to it. They capture that balance of being able to be kind of silly with each other, but it never crossed a line into being unprofessional or disrespectful. And yes, both worked with intimacy before, but also neither of them came in with the attitude of, “Yeah, yeah. I know what I’m doing.” They were both like, “Great, this is a new thing, new person. Let’s get this right.” They both had a real respect for the process of intimacy coordination and all the things that go into the melting pot to help make moments, I would like to think, really speak to viewers and to the characters and the story. Everyone can do their best work when everyone’s sure that it’s being taken seriously.
There were intimacy scenes in the film’s source material. How much did you pull from that to help inform your understanding of the love story beyond what was in the script?
Whenever I’m approaching intimacy projects, I like to draw from as many resources as possible. Sometimes that’s more about the context of the world that they’re in: If it’s a different culture or time periods, then I’ll get into a bit of research so I can feel embedded. For something where there is an actual text and it’s based off the material or on another TV show, you’re going to read that specific content as well. To do my due diligence for the job of really being as prepared as possible I want to make sure I know everything I possibly can to be able to tackle the characters and story properly. But then working with the director, they have their own ideas. And I’m then ultimately very led by them, because I’m there in a collaborative role. I want to get a sense of how they’re imagining things. I can bring creative suggestions and ideas. But a director is always going to be the person who ultimately guides what is going to come to screen.
Matthew López and his co-writer Ted Malawer both come from the world of theater, where rehearsal is an incredibly important part of the process. How much emphasis did Matthew put on that as a director and how helpful was that to your work?
Sometimes directors in film and TV who have no theater background, they like rehearsal time. But definitely a director with a theater background like Matthew. He came into it much more dedicated to the rehearsal time and using that effectively. And just having that at all was such a beneficial thing. On some other projects, there’s more of a sense of the joy of finding out in the day, which is another method and that’s fine. But I’m from a theater background as well. I still work in theater and really appreciate that kind of approach.
I think with intimacy, it allows more time to build a foundation. Particularly because intimacy coordination is still [new]. For a lot of people I’m working with, it’s the first time or one of the firrst times they’re working with an intimacy coordinator. So it gives me more time to get embedded, introduce best practices and get actors used to the language, and used to really reflecting on what they want to do and how they communicate it. If you’re doing a stunt, people might need to become more aware of the stunt language. So I really appreciate having that rehearsal time, and it just meant that we could do best practice rather than just good practice. Matthew took it seriously; production then took it seriously.
Intimacy in this film has a lot of meanings — from the emotional to the physical — in part because the film is itself a romantic journey. The lake scene is one example of that. Because it’s a rom-com and intimacy is at its center, how expansive was your role for this film?
Whenever there’s any kissing, I was involved to make sure that was all done and clear. Then with a lot of moments we had rehearsal, where we established a lot of the framework of their dynamics. I was there for some of the lake days. I wasn’t on set for that exact scene because we shot that quite late in the process, actually. At that point, there was a sense that everyone was clear on what it was; we talked about what it was and what it wasn’t. We’d established such a framework that there were some things that, with the actors’ permission, it’s fine for them to not have an intimacy coordinator there. That scene is also so emotional, and I really wanted them to be in it.
But sometimes you work on a project where there are bits of intimacy here and there, and it’s a little bit more disparate and the moments are a bit more disconnected. But whenever there’s a story about their love, it’s about the romance, it’s about their relationship — you’re charting a relationship through a journey and you want to have that throughline. So we spoke about what steps we see in their romantic, and therefore, sexual journey, and what those steps are through their intimacy in big-picture terms.
We wanted to make sure that every time we were seeing intimate beats it’s that something different was happening for them. We were learning new things as a new stage in their romantic relationship, which helps us keep the intimate storytelling interesting and ensures that all those moments of intimacy are earned and useful to the story. We’re not interested in there being things just for the sake of it. That then helps the actors feel more comfortable, as well as performing the content, because they’re like, “Oh, great. I see what use this has, I’m not just being asked to do all this stuff for the sake of it.”
In an interview with Esquire, intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, after talking about the positioning of bodies depending on the sexuality and gender of a character, said “if those details are wrong, the queer community will know. We have to make sure we’re honoring those details and getting them right.” Queer audiences are acutely aware of how they are and have been depicted, down to their physical intimacy. Matthew also shared he wanted the film to be queer but not overly defined by that as a classic rom-com. So how did you think about queer sex and intimacy here, and deliver on that as part of a universal love story?
You’ll have to stop me because I could give you a TED talk. (Laughs.) I’m a queer intimacy coordinator. I wrote my master’s about representation of queer sex on screen. I’m really passionate about how we represent queer sex generally. But particularly, for me, a lot of my experience is working with representations of queer males. And I’m very happy to now work on quite a lot of queer stories. It’s huge because the headline with this is that in getting more representations of queer intimacy at all, that will broaden what we see. We won’t feel so starved for content, and therefore put so much expectation around what these moments are. But at the moment, I feel like there isn’t as many good representations of queer sex on screen. So when I do work on them, I do feel a responsibility and the weight of the queer audience.
I’m going, “What are the kind of scenes that I think are really important to see? And what are the things that I see too much or not enough of? What will turn people off?” And I don’t mean in a sexual way, just that people switch off from it because it doesn’t feel representative or it feels stereotypical.
On the one hand, with queerness, we should get romantic storylines that are loving, tender, sweet and gentle that aren’t so much about sexualized raunchiness. But then sometimes when we do see those stories, people feel a bit like it’s been a dampening of queerness, or it’s through a heteronormative lens that has made it all placated and sweet. That’s where I step back to and say: We should have it all. We should get the really explicit, radical capital Q queer sex scenes and the scenes that feel like they are the sweeter rom-com. The queer experience is that we can do anything and that we shouldn’t feel penned in.
My one big gripe I have around queer sex scenes between men is that it’s often represented as rough and loveless; usually sex from behind, in moments of frustration or conflict, and there’s a sort of wrestle to them. Of course, that is true for some parts of people’s experiences, but I feel like it’s disproportionately represented because it is a more interesting thing for straight creators and to mainstream audiences. They think that’s the way that they can consider queer sex. Then we don’t see the sex as much when there is a coming together and they do end up in love. It’s almost like straight audiences and straight creators can’t quite comprehend what loving sex between two men looks like. They’re just like: Pan away to the window on that beach. Or they’re like, “Oh, they’re having conflicted, rough sex and then they fall in love, and maybe we can have that, but then we don’t see what that looks like because I don’t know what that looks like.”
I’m really big on there being a diversity of representation of queer sex, full stop. And within that, you can have two men having penetrative anal sex and it still be about love and connection and care. And even though there are more intimacy coordinators working on sex scenes helping to find that sort of detail and diversity, we’re still not seeing that so much. So I’m very happy to be able to work on something where I feel like we do get to see that loving sex where a viewer at home can go, “That’s the kind of sex I’d like to have with someone I love,” and that’s otherwise something they haven’t gotten to see when other representations are really intense sex scenes or porn.
Now, I can’t come in and go, “Hi, team. The only reason we’re doing this film is so we can show a good representation.” I’m aware, it’s not like a documentary. We’re not doing the “more you know” style situation. But still, I’m partly there as a creative. Part of that is having that dramaturgical point of view of knowing the canon of intimacy onscreen and understanding where we’re going to situate within that, which will be then about audience reception. So I will provide that and talk about that with everyone, and see how that might affect people’s priorities and how it’s represented.
Several people shared that the sex scene really surprised and impressed them as a moment where characters weren’t flattened into tropes about experience or confidence but existed as real, multifaceted people. But that also speaks to the ways that LGBTQ characters have historically been framed in stereotypical or misunderstood characterizations — the top-bottom dynamic as an example. So, how did you and Matthew think about what that moment should mean for the characters and viewers in light of that?
I mean, that top-bottom thing, that’s another pet peeve of mine. (Laughs.) We nearly entirely see the more confident, more active, aggressive, older, harrier, more beefy character be the top and the younger, less harrier, thinner, more shy, sweet or feminine, character be the bottom onscreen — although that’s sometimes inverted like in Tales of the City. But that’s a very queer show that understands these things. So it’s nice that these characters play with that in terms of their confidence level.
We very rarely see the recessive partner, the bottom, reach orgasm, whereas it’s much more likely that we see the top orgasm. It’s very much like a heteronormative model with two straight people where the man orgasms, and we don’t really necessarily know what to do with a female orgasm still, sometimes. I don’t think we have an amazing canon of representations around female pleasure and pleasure around people with vulvas and their orgasms. It’s an interesting dynamic when there’s a character who knows more and a character who knows less, but there’s still an equality and collaboration — it’s like a shared moment, which I think it’s a lovely thing to see in a loving sex scene.
We tried to think about the little moments of ongoing consent, and — you do catch it in the film — a little sense of checking in between them. It’s not just us going about the physical choreography of where body parts go and where their arms are, or where they’re pressed together. There’s also those little moments of connection when they’re checking on each other. We talked, and we had a shape of what the beats of the sex are. We were all on the same page about what’s happening. And then clarifying what we don’t see, if we’re jumping ahead in time at all. So that’s the kind of mechanics of sex and the foreplay and lube use and condoms and everything that is in play, but we can’t necessarily show. Though I’d love to have one four-hour sex scene where I get to do all those things we can’t have onscreen where we have absolutely every beat of the sex in it. (Laughs.)
We talk a lot in terms of rhythm and beats and breaths and eye contact, and shifts in energy to make it feel like a well-rounded, full moment between two people. I think sometimes people will well-meaningly go, “Oh, we just don’t need to show it.” Sure, sometimes you don’t show it; sometimes you don’t want anything to feel excessive or gratuitous. But a lot of character and story can happen in moments of sex. We learn a lot about people, particularly for queer people, where these moments of sex might be even more significant. It feels always sort of bonkers to me to not have that. I’m so glad obviously that the film does. In a world in which some other person could have adapted it and been like, “Oh, those sex scenes, let’s not have them,” you’d be missing such a hugely crucial part of the characters stories and how they feel about each other and themselves.
Interview edited for length and clarity.