The pay gap in Hollywood has been a hot topic in recent years, but also a difficult one to pin down since there are so many factors involved. An actor’s wages often depend less on how much screen time they have or how prominent a role they play, and more on their “star value” and negotiating skills. For example, Mark Hamill was paid somewhere in the low seven figures for his brief appearance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, while fresh-faced leads John Boyega and Daisy Ridley were only paid between $100,000-$300,00 each.
In an open letter published last year, actress Jennifer Lawrence reflected on the reveal that she and Amy Adams had been paid less than their male co-stars for American Hustle. “I didn’t get mad at Sony,” Lawrence wrote. “I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.” But while Lawrence was already a big star thanks to the success of the Hunger Games movies, and potentially could have negotiated harder, other actors are not so fortunate.
Writing in her upcoming memoir Around the Way Girl, actress Taraji P. Henson revealed some stunning details about her salary for David Fincher’s 2008 magical realist drama The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Henson played Queenie, the adoptive mother of Brad Pitt’s titular character, and scored an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She was also listed as the third principal actor in the movie, after Pitt and Cate Blanchett. However, not only was Henson paid less than 2% of Pitt’s salary, she also had to pay for her own accommodation while the film shot on location.
“Both Brad and Cate got millions… With bated breath, I sat by the phone for hours, waiting for [my manager] to call and tell me the number that I thought would make me feel good: somewhere in the mid six figures – no doubt a mere percentage of what Brad was bringing home to Angelina and their beautiful babies, but something worthy of a solid up-and-coming actress with a decent amount of critical acclaim for her work. Alas, that request was dead on arrival. ‘I’m sorry, Taraji,’ Vince said quietly when we finally connected. ‘They came in at the lowest of six figures. I convinced them to add in a little more, but that’s as high as they’d go.’
“There was one other thing: I’d have to agree to pay my own location fees while filming in New Orleans, meaning three months of hotel expenses would be coming directly out of my pocket. Insult, meet injury.”
For those who might think that it’s normal for actors to pay for their own accommodation during filming – it definitely is not. Location fees (transporting the cast and crew to the planned filming location, and organizing accommodation for them) are as much a part of a movie’s budget as on-set catering or camera equipment, so Henson’s contract effectively meant that she had to partially fund the movie by covering those costs. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button‘s total production budget was $150 million, and it grossed nearly $334 million at the global box office.
In Henson’s case, trying to drive a hard bargain wasn’t really an option. She recalls that on the day she was contacted about meeting with Fincher, she was actually hosting a garage sale to sell off some of her clothes and other possessions. Moreover, she explains that if she had tried to refuse the role then the studio could have replaced her with any number of brilliant actresses eager for the role:
“The math really is pretty simple: there are way more talented black actresses than there are intelligent, meaningful roles for them, and we’re consistently charged with diving for the crumbs of the scraps, lest we starve. This is exactly how a studio can get away with paying the person who’s name is third on the call sheet of a big-budget film less than 2% what it’s paying the person whose name is listed first. I knew the stakes: no matter how talented, no matter how many accolades my prior work had received, if I pushed for more money, I’d be replaced and no one would so much as a blink.”
Although it’s been eight years since the release of Benjamin Button, key roles for black actresses in Hollywood movies are still few and far between, and there’s little doubt that the situation described above still persists. Until the number of available roles for black actresses is proportional to those for white actors, black women in the industry may be forced to face the choice between a bad deal, or no deal at all.
Taraji P. Henson is currently starring in music industry drama Empire, which airs Wednesday nights on FOX.