Siena Kelly: "We need to have a conversation about our responsibility to sex workers"

Actress Siena Kelly on playing a porn star in Channel 4’s Adult Material and what it was like visiting the PornHub set for research...

Actress Siena Kelly on playing a porn star in Channel 4’s Adult Material and what it was like visiting the PornHub set for research...

Playing a porn star isn’t exactly the easiest easy role to prepare for according to actress Siena Kelly, who plays sex worker Amy in Channel 4’s new female-led four-part drama, Adult Material. Written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Dawn Shadforth, the cast includes Hayley Squires, Joe Dempsie, Kerry Godliman and Rupert Everett, and tackles the world of porn and how much it influences all of us, whether we’re watching it or not. Here, Siena fills us in on the experience…

Were you nervous about playing a porn star?

I was never too worried because I knew straight away why they were making this and where it was coming from. The fact that there would be an intimacy coordinator [on set] and it was directed by a female [Dawn Shadforth] and written by a female [Lucy Kirkwood] I knew how they were going to film it and handle all the sex scenes. But when I was on set and had already accepted the job, I did have other actors and people on set like, ‘You're so brave, I know loads of actors who wouldn't even audition’. I was like, ‘Wait, what? Did I miss something?!’ But I didn't have any huge concerns.

Often the most challenging roles turn out to be the career-defining ones…

Yeah. I guess some people would have been put off straight away because it’s about porn and you're playing the porn star. Some of her choices are not the best, but I didn't see anything wrong with it. I just saw a brilliant script and a thought-provoking series with great characters.

You mentioned an intimacy coordinator, what did they do?

Before we even started filming, we got to create the sex scenes off set with the intimacy coordinator, [Yarit Dor] a stunt coordinator and the director. We got to do it fully-clothed to work out what we were comfortable with. It meant we also got to meet our scene partners which was brilliant. We roughly created our scenes and talked about what would be happening, what we should show - and what we shouldn’t - and what was important.

Was she on set during filming?

Yeah, when we were filming, she [Dor] was there every time there was an intimate scene to make sure it was going smoothly. And because we had rehearsed off set, sometimes on set it would be like, ‘Oh, this doesn’t fit in the space, we need to re-choreograph it’. I had never done any intimate scenes, so I was really spoilt with this being my first experience.

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Did her presence make the process easier?

It made me feel incredibly safe and that made everything more fun. I felt I could be way more playful on set and more confident. Even before we got to the rehearsal stage, before I’d even signed a contract, Dawn [Shadforth] and one of the producers came to my agent’s office. They went through every single intimate moment in all four episodes. They spoke about what they wanted to show, how they thought it would be filmed, what I felt comfortable with and how dressed - or undressed - they needed me to be. So from the get-go, they were making sure everyone felt comfortable.

The porn industry is known for its degradation and objectification of women, but throughout the show we see the female characters discussing how empowered they feel. Did it make you question how you felt about the industry? 

What being on this show has made me feel is that I totally support and respect people's right to sell sex as a service. I can see all the pros and cons of porn. That’s what’s brilliant about the show - it's not telling you what to think and it doesn't tell you at the end, ‘And that's why porn is OK’ or ‘That’s why porn is terrible’. It's more of a thought piece, it starts a conversation. It made me realise that the industry - and I guess the power dynamics of porn - is so much more intricate than just women getting treated badly.

How did you research the role?

I watched every documentary I could get my hands on. Every podcast, every interview, I did so much research. We actually went to a Porn Hub set and hung out with porn stars. What I found the most interesting was the corporate side of porn, and how pretty much all the major porn sites are owned by one man. Free internet porn completely changed porn for workers and consumers. That made me interested in how free streaming porn affected the kind of porn we watch. And how far we’re making sex workers push their bodies, how long sex workers last in the industry and the impact to consumers. The rate of erectile dysfunction in men between ages 16 to 21 went up 1000% since 2007! That coincides with free internet porn. I found that very, very interesting.

The knock-on effects to society are huge, aren’t they? 

Yeah. Before free internet porn you could have a really long career in porn - women were in the industry for ten or fifteen years. Nowadays, girls last six months because there's so much content out there - you have to keep coming up with new things. It’s like, how far can you push your body? And people can't handle it, understandably. Then we vilify people in the industry. But they're only doing it because ‘us’ - the consumers - are asking for it. We need to have a conversation about our responsibility to sex workers and what we are making them do. I came away thinking we should pay for porn. Kids wouldn’t be able to accidentally watch it if you had to insert a credit card, and it would lessen how often people watch it. And people in the industry would be getting paid fairly.

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It feels like there’s a disparity between the way Americans and Brits talk about sex and - we refuse to discuss sex and porn here. Do you think that’s the case?

When I was doing my research I wanted to make it as accurate as possible. I found every documentary, memoir, podcast interview, awards ceremony... it was all American. Every whistle-blower, every article I could find was American. There was pretty much zero about people who work in the British porn industry. I went to feminist bookshops and there really was nothing. It made me think, ‘Oh, wow, Brits, really are prudes’. We really don't want to listen to the sex workers, we’re silencing them and we're not wanting to take responsibility. We’re pretending they don’t exist.

Were you worried about glamorising the industry?

I did feel a responsibility in that we don't want to be glamorising it. But I think with what happens in this series, it doesn’t. There are sex workers all around the world who feel completely empowered by their trade. So I didn't want to make a comment on whether she was she was a good person or a bad person. I wasn’t trying to teach them a responsibility like, ‘Girls - don’t do porn!’. Because for some girls, it might be the right thing. And then for some people it absolutely is not. We’re looking at a drama with fictional characters and what's right for these characters.

How did you feel about family and friends watching explicit scenes, was that something that worried you?

Yeah [laughs]. That was the last thing I thought of before I accepted it. I had actually already accepted it and I posted it in my family Whatsapp group chat. I said ‘Oh my gosh I’ve been cast as a lead in a C4 show’. Then obviously they replied, like, ‘Oh, amazing, what is it?’. I have two older brothers and a lot of male cousins... When I told my mum and dad, I sent them a three-page document because I wanted to calm them down. Then I was doing research at my parents’ house and I was going to watch this documentary on porn. My mum was there, so I was like, ‘Do you want to watch it with me?’.

Wait, you watched porn with your mum?!

We watched it and there was some horrific stuff. I’m not judging anyone’s kinks or fetishes but it really made both of us deeply uncomfortable. My mum was like, ‘Siena, are you going to have to do any of this stuff?’. To be honest though, you feel like you see more than you do in this show. Some period dramas probably have more sex and naked bodies than this. The direction the writers took was not wanting to exploit the actors. They were like, ‘We don't actually need to see that, we know what you're doing’. Most of the time, the camera is on someone's face or on the film set, because we're trying to show what the industry looks like and how it's filmed. We’re just trying to tell a story.

Adult Material is on C4 and All4 now. 

Sophie Goddard is the Entertainment Editor of Marie Claire UK, as well as working across other titles in a freelance capacity. She has over 10 years journalism experience working on both digital and print platforms and prior to Marie Claire, worked at Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazine. Sophie writes about a number of topics, specialising in celebrity interviews and features. At Marie Claire, she is responsible for booking and interviewing cover stars and other celebrity interviews and is always open to pitches from publicists (she is always open to discussing sausage dogs, too).