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Sex scenes on screen not as fun as they look, actors say

Much flesh is exposed “The Sessions” about man (John Hawkes) an irlung who hires sex surrogate (Helen Hunt).

Much flesh is exposed in “The Sessions,” about a man (John Hawkes) in an iron lung who hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt).

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Updated: November 24, 2012 6:01AM

‘A horror.” That’s how TV and movie star William H. Macy describes the often arduous process of having simulated sex onscreen.

These days, especially on unregulated pay cable and to a lesser degree basic cable, there’s more of it than ever.

Consider actor Shia LaBeouf’s recent breast-caressing exhibitionism in a video for Sigur Ros’s song “Fjogur Piano.” Showtime’s “The Borgias” and “Shameless” are chock-full of carnality, too. So are HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Starz’s Chicago-based “Boss.”

And thanks to a June Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the Federal Communication Commission from levying fines against over-the-air TV shows for “fleeting” nudity and profanity, network television can feature more of both without fear of reprisal.

While groups like the Parents Television Council have voiced their extreme displeasure at this apparent loosening of standards, Macy takes a much more chilled approach.

“Violence is always bad,” he says. “Sex is good. Even bad sex is pretty good.”

As an integral part of the human experience, he adds, it’s “right up there with eating.”

Although the formerly Chicago-based actor and star of “Shameless” (set and partially shot in town) has done his share of steamy scenes — but not in “The Sessions,” in which he plays a Catholic priest — he says they remain tough to do well.

But “that’s what we get paid for,” Macy says of his actorly ilk, “to do intimate things in front of a whole bunch of Teamsters.”

He failed to note if Teamsters were present when one of his latest co-stars, Helen Hunt, flaunted flesh aplenty while filming the buzzed-about indie film “The Sessions.” It made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opens Friday in Chicago. The poignant story of a man (played by John Hawkes) confined to an iron lung who hires a sex surrogate (Hunt) to rid him of his virginity, it is rife with unabashed (if pretend) intercourse and nudity — mostly Hunt’s and to a lesser degree Hawkes’.

“She’s easy to look at, which is always a plus,” Macy says of Hunt, “but you have no idea how brave she is … . It’s not easy to do.”

As Hawkes says, “Any unfamiliar awkwardness or nervousness worked in our favor.”

Like any acting, sex onscreen is largely a matter of memorized lines and choreographed movements. And being in the moment.

“You get bold,” says Macy, whose carnal prowess is sometimes featured on “Shameless.” “You have to turn off a certain part of yourself. You have to turn off the shame. You have to turn off the self-consciousness. ... You just have to throw yourself into it with abandon.”

Veteran television director Michael Lange agrees with Macy that sex scenes are a “horror.” In his case, that sentiment applies to shooting. Most of his scenes have been for network shows, which must conform to FCC guidelines, so the sex is less unbridled than on cable. Still, it’s a delicate dance.

“It’s a beautiful act which most human beings enjoy,” says Lange, who directed episodes of the MTV dramedy “Underemployed,” set in Chicago. “And then it’s reduced to a somewhat technical, extremely awkward situation, which takes much of the enjoyment out of it — especially considering there’s 50 to 70 people watching while you do it. Now, there may be some actors who like that, but I would not be at liberty to say if I’ve ever met one.”

Male actors are more game, Lange says. “Whenever I’ve done sex scenes, I have always thought, ‘This is why young boys decide to become actors,’ ” he jokes.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, nature sometimes takes its course.

One one “Underemployed” scene, “we had to reshoot because nature took its course a little too much,” Lange says. “It was a little too sexy for MTV.”

In his 2003 film “The Cooler,” Macy recalls, he and his co-star Maria Bello had to perform in several sex scenes. The day before filming, Macy says they met with the director and the director of photography to do a — “if you’ll pardon the expression” — “dry run” with their clothes on. When it came time to shoot, they knew exactly how to move and where to look — “no surprises.”

“And as a result,” Macy says, “we felt sort of in charge of it and we got bolder. We chipped in some ideas. There’s a shot where the camera passes down the whole bed, and the only thing between me and the rest of the world is Maria Bello’s hand over Young Will. And that was my idea.”

In the days and weeks prior, however, he’d been “pissing and moaning” about the seemingly impossible task that lay ahead. “Oh, my God, no!” he fretted. “I can’t do this!”

Fortunately for Macy, his actor wife Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”) set her longtime spouse straight. He was “preparing to be bad in those scenes,” she admonished. The remedy: either get them cut or start figuring out how to do them well.

“And I was gob-smacked,” Macy says. “She was so right. So then I thought of the scenes as an acting challenge: what’s different at the end of the scene than at the beginning of the scene?”

That transformational element made his formerly fearsome task somewhat less daunting.

“Suddenly I had something to do,” Macy says, “rather than just self-consciously pretend to ...”

His last word rhymes with luck. Hey, we’re not HBO.

Contributing: Cindy Pearlman

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