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10 actors who turn sex scenes into art

It's dirty work, but someone has to keep sex real onscreen—and these actors are willing and able

Written by
David Ehrlich

They may be few and far between, but a handful of movie stars have shown a consistent interest in making sure that sex—actual, complicated, unashamed sex—isn’t entirely relegated to the art house. This list features women who have been dropped into an industry that institutionally exploits their sexuality, but have still managed to inhabit sex scenes on their own terms. You can also find men here who were granted the power to subvert Hollywood’s calcified gender dynamics, and did exactly that.

RECOMMENDED: Our list of the 100 best movie sex scenes ever made

Eva Green

1. Eva Green

This isn’t a ranked list, but Eva Green is still our No. 1. Possessed by an irrepressible sexuality and unashamed to wield it however she likes, Green radiates the kind of fearlessness that can make even her worst movies a delight to watch (there isn’t another performer on the planet who could’ve so thoroughly redeemed last year’s otherwise wretched Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For). It’s not just that she’s always willing to get naked, but that she wears it with such confidence.
James Franco

2. James Franco

James Franco takes a lot of shit but the former Oscar host has exhibited a remarkably progressive attitude toward sexuality. Sometimes that manifests in using Instagram to hit on underage girls (whoops), but more often it results in genuinely inquisitive deconstructions of masculinity like Interior. Leather Bar.
Charlotte Gainsbourg

3. Charlotte Gainsbourg

Adventurous things were inevitably going to be expected of any child of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, but Charlotte Gainsbourg has exceeded expectations. For the latest chapter of a decades-long career, Gainsbourg has been adopted as Lars von Trier’s favorite muse, her raw performances in films like Antichrist and Nymphomaniac unafraid to confront the masochistic side of desire.

Maggie Gyllenhaal

4. Maggie Gyllenhaal

Even when she's only taking a paycheck  as Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, Maggie Gyllenhaal has always made a point of playing real women—and she’s proudly owned all that’s come along with that. Her Secretary performance as an office worker indoctrinated viewers into the ways of BDSM and helped pave the way for Fifty Shades of Grey. Meanwhile, her turns in films like Sherrybaby and Crazy Heart have shown an actor who’s as capable of exuding sex as she is of normalizing it.
Nate Parker

5. Nate Parker

As the love interest in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s underseen gem Beyond the Lights, Nate Parker was given the dispiritingly rare opportunity to sink his teeth into a dramatic role as a truly decent, sexually active black man. And he crushed it.

Lena Dunham

6. Lena Dunham

Tiny Furniture was never going to be a blockbuster hit and the brunt of Lena Dunham’s fame is owed to Girls, but this 28-year-old woman may still be producer Judd Apatow’s greatest contribution to the movies. Dunham’s candid and often tragicomically controversial approach to sex has paved the way for major new voices like Trainwreck star Amy Schumer and the girls of Broad City (they’ll be in movies soon enough).

Michael Fassbender

7. Michael Fassbender

Yes, his penis has been the Shame star's big attraction (has anyone ever benefited so much from footage of them taking a piss?), but it’s Fassbender’s lack of shame that has made him such a breath of fresh air. An actor’s actor who became an unlikely star, Fassbender has never been afraid to embrace his carnal side (A Dangerous Method), especially when it doesn’t reflect well on his character (Fish Tank).

Rosario Dawson

8. Rosario Dawson

Given that her breakthrough role was in Larry Clark’s hyper-controversial Kids, it was clear from the start that Rosario Dawson was never going to be your average starlet. And though she’s earned a great deal of mainstream success over the years, Dawson hasn’t had to sacrifice her sexual agency to do it, her powerful turns in films like Trance and 25th Hour showing that her sex is much more than a symbol.

James Deen

9. James Deen

It’s true that The Canyons barely got a theatrical release, but the chipper and peerlessly approachable James Deen is as mainstream as male porn stars come. He’s the only person on this list who would have to tone things down considerably in order to gain a broader appeal, but few performers have done as much to normalize screen sex. Any future roles for him would insinuate more sex than most movies could ever hope to show.

Viggo Mortensen

10. Viggo Mortensen

You may know him as Aragorn but Viggo Mortensen isn’t your average face of a multibillion-dollar franchise. As he’s settled into a restlessly adventurous creative streak that has seen him work with bold filmmakers like Lisandro Alonso and David Cronenberg, Mortensen has engaged with his sexuality in ways that most stars wouldn’t dare—and we’re not just talking about the infamous all-nude fight scene in a Russian bathhouse from Eastern Promises. Most memorably, his performance as Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method leant a marquee pedigree to a movie that shared its characters’ fervor for getting to the bottom of sexual desire.

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