Casting Roles with Nudity: Body Checks and Why They Never Should Have Existed
In the spring of 2021, the final semester of my undergraduate acting program, we had a routine Q&A session with a prominent casting director in Los Angeles to prepare for our end-of-the-year showcase. I, an emerging intimacy director, asked him about his experience with intimacy in the industry and what he knew of the professional casting process when the role involved nudity. To my dismay, he began to explain what he referred to as “body checks” that were performed at callbacks. If the role required full nudity, the “body check” would involve an actor coming into the casting room wearing just a towel, standing in front of the casting team, dropping their towel, turning in a 360-degree circle, putting the towel back on, and then leaving the room.
In spite of the clear discomfort my classmates and I expressed upon hearing this answer, the casting director remained self-assured. He advised that if we were uncomfortable with nudity, we should avoid these roles altogether; however, he reassured us, in these “body check” auditions there would be no cameras in the room, a trained advocate would be on hand for the actor, and as few people would be present in the room as possible. To him, this was straightforward: It would be a “safe space.”
It is no secret that leaps and bounds have been made in the entertainment industry to keep actors safe thanks to the hard work of organizations such as Intimacy Directors and Coordinators, the #MeToo Movement, and Intimacy Directors International (now dissolved). However, my experience in college proves the work is far from over. While the casting director may have believed my concern about nudity in auditions stemmed from personal body insecurities, that was not accurate; instead, I was concerned by the motivations behind holding fully nude body checks for productions. In spite of safety precautions this or any other casting director might have in place, there is inherent damage caused by the requirement of nudity in the audition process.
The term “body check” itself implies that something about the actor’s nude body must be checked out or checked for.
As of a 2020 update to SAG-AFTRA, full nudity is no longer allowed in professional film auditions. Body checks completed in the audition process of a SAG-governed production may only take place at one final callback, and actors are provided modesty garments such as pasties, a G-string, or an “equivalent underwear or swimsuit.” This update is a significant step forward for SAG, yet it does not negate the necessity to examine why these rights must exist at all and, if they must, why prominent casting directors like the one that visited my class might not know about them. Why have other organizations and theatremakers not adopted these same principles to protect their actors if nudity must be required in an audition room?
The term “body check” itself implies that something about the actor’s nude body must be checked out or checked for. It is highly probable that many body checks are done due to fatphobic ideology and the desire to cast body types that can be hyper-sexualized. This practice thus has the potential to further perpetuate an unrealistic body standard.
These checks, even if conducted only at a final callback, solidify the idea that looks continue to take precedence over ability. While it may be difficult to eliminate all body checks (including those in which the actor is clothed to some degree) from auditions, fully nude auditions should be eliminated across all art forms to avoid basing final casting decisions on the appearance of an actor’s nipples and genitals. These areas on the body are heavily stigmatized, and almost any evaluation of their appearance on another’s body has the potential to lead to conversations that involve objectifying and transphobic language.
I can’t help but imagine what these conversations sound like behind the table after a fully nude body check. I imagine two women in final callbacks for a production that includes a topless scene. If they body checked their breasts, would the casting directors discuss the actors’ nipples or the placement of their breasts? Why wouldn’t a body check in a swimsuit be sufficient—if one is even needed? If the casting team has specific concerns about things such as scarring, tattoos, piercings, etc., questions regarding those concerns can all be asked on an audition sheet and not “checked” while the actor is nude at a final callback.
Or I imagine another scenario of a production needing to cast a male role involving full nudity. They decide on one actor over the other—but why? Did one have a larger penis? Or did the casting team just need to be sure there was a penis? It is because of these potentially damaging discussions that modesty garments need to be provided for actors if body checks are required in audition processes.
I have heard many theatremakers say body checks are not intended as an opportunity for the casting team to view an actor’s body before making a decision but instead to ensure the actor is truly comfortable with nudity before they make an offer. To that argument I say: Creative teams need to trust their actors and believe actors when they express their boundaries. I understand there will always be nudity and intimacy in art and I am not suggesting that should go away. But I believe its usage can be more thoughtful.
We must discuss the meaning of nudity in art. Nakedness should be used to shine a spotlight on topics of vulnerability and intimacy, which do not require a particular aesthetic. Plays such as Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses and Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play can be used as an example of how nudity is strategically used to show growth and vulnerability.
If an actor has to be nude in a live theatre performance, the genitalia required should not be specified. In the rare case that the message of the art requires a specific type of genital, that art should be reserved for a film format where a prosthetic or body double can be used, which would eliminate a situation in which a casting team decides between two actors in part by using a body check to cast based on their genitals. Just as professional theatremakers would not create a fight scene without a fight choreographer, they should not ask actors to perform fully nude without the resources to get prosthetics, hire a body double, or accept the actor’s genitals the way they are.
Looking to the future, there are micro- and macro-level changes that need to occur to redesign theatre and film’s approach to nudity. At a personal level, artists need to examine their perspectives on sex and nudity in art. What is the purpose of their usage and when are they best suited? It is especially important to have these conversations in smaller arts communities in which actors don’t have union rules to protect them. Even Actor’s Equity has yet to be transparent about their protocols on nude auditions. Currently, their handbook is remarkably vague; they need to follow the steps of SAG-AFTRA to determine rights for actors in these situations.
Academically, to avoid a repeat of my college Q&A experience, performance BA and BFA programs should teach actors their rights when it comes to nudity. Most performance programs have an Acting for the Camera class, and this topic would fit perfectly into those curriculums. Students want to—and should—learn about simulated sex, nudity riders, and audition practices before they enter the industry to be knowledgeable and prepared. The sooner performers are informed, the earlier they will be able to decide what their boundaries are and advocate for themselves and others. Furthermore, teaching young theatremakers about safe intimacy protocols in audition and rehearsal rooms is the only way to ensure a safer future for actors in non-union productions.
We must discuss the meaning of nudity in art. Nakedness should be used to shine a spotlight on topics of vulnerability and intimacy, which do not require a particular aesthetic.
Eliminating full nudity in auditions will create an artistic culture that is more inclusive and productive. It will push us as makers of art to present a more relatable and accurate representation of the world we live in. We need to question those in positions of power and start conversations that change the way theatremakers and theatre viewers talk about actors and their bodies. Changing how we cast and involve intimacy in art is not an artistic roadblock; it is a springboard for elevated art.