While there have been some actors that were lucky enough to achieve fame overnight, not everyone can become an instant sensation just by being plucked from the masses. On the other hand, the world is filled with struggling actors working as waiters and waitresses while fighting to go on auditions. From Penny on The Big Bang Theory to Joey from Friends, it’s commonly known that many aspiring actors struggle to even land a role on television, much less get a speaking role in a feature film.
For many actors, television is often a jumping off point to help propel their careers onto the silver screen. Kevin Bacon and Demi Moore famously started off their careers doing soap operas, and even our beloved Tom Hanks had a television role in the ’80’s on a sitcom called Bosom Buddies. While many of Hollywood’s A-list actors started off their careers in television, they don’t often return to the small screen after they have reached film success. Unless it’s an occasional talk show appearance to help promote a movie role or to host SNL, there seems to be a certain stigma between TV and film actors.
However, there have been some A-list actors that deigned to portray a role on television, regardless of their film success. While they definitely took a pay cut in taking these television roles, there are a number of different reasons why an actor would choose to stray from their main bread and butter. Whether it’s their chance to be part of one of their favorite television shows, for publicity, there simply weren’t any good roles available film at the time, or “any paycheck’s a good paycheck,” check out these 15 A-list actors that took a pay cut to be on TV.
15. Octavia Spencer
Octavia Spencer is an accomplished actress that has definitely reached commercial success in the film industry. Starring in blockbuster films like The Divergent film series and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, she even won Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Help at the 2012 Oscars. Despite having an upward trajectory in the film industry, she obviously didn’t think it was beneath her to take an acting role on The Big Bang Theory. In 2008, Octavia Spencer took a small role in Season 2, episode 5 of the show, where she played a worker at the DMV. While she only spoke a handful of lines, she put her patented spunky attitude into the character and made a lasting impression regardless of how small the part.
14. Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson is a well-respected actress that has starred in a number of award-winning films. One of the more notable films was Lost in Translation, which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and also brought her a BAFTA award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. However, oftentimes opportunities afforded actors aren’t solely based on skill and networking. Since public perception is a huge part in whether or not roles are open to actresses, it didn’t hurt that Scarlett Johansson was long coined Hollywood’s hottest “It” girl.
To perpetuate this, there was an entire episode of Entourage that revolved around the crush Vincent Chase had on her, and how he wanted his manager to set up a date for him. In the beginning stage of hiring his best friend as his manager, it seemed like almost an impossible feat for Eric to make this happen but ultimately fans got a glimpse of Scarlett just as the episode was about to end. While she definitely didn’t make the kind of money she was used to with just a few minutes of television airtime, it was probably for the positive publicity rather than the paycheck.
13. Oprah Winfrey
While everyone can agree Oprah Winfrey is no stranger to making her riches from television, she is also thought of as an accomplished A-list actress that has played in hugely successful films like The Color Purple and The Butler. However, it was a brief and low-paying role she took in 1997 that she claims earned her the most offensive hate mail. That episode of Ellen was watched by 42 million viewers, and featured Oprah Winfrey as the therapist for the character played by Ellen DeGeneres. While she took a major pay cut for this small role, she didn’t quite take the part because she needed the extra money. Being famous for urging others to live in their own truth, Oprah’s decision to take the role was more about the social aspect of the episode rather than the income it would bring in.
12. Brad Pitt
For an A-list actor like Brad Pitt, it’s definitely strange to think that he would want to take on a menial role on television. However, that’s exactly what happened when he played in the Friends episode, “The One with the Rumor.” Brad Pitt played during Season 8’s Thanksgiving episode, working alongside his then-wife Jennifer Aniston. However, there were a few factors that make audiences wonder about this strange appearance on television. With a declining storyline for the Friends series during its latter years, this could have been a cheap ploy to get audiences more interested in watching the show. Also, the episode was filmed shortly before the demise of the marriage between Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, which gives a bit more meaning that the episode showed Pitt’s character used to be in the “I hate Rachel” club.
11. Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch is an actor with the rare ability to find equal fame through his work in television and film. His early work in television earned him high praise, and was probably a huge factor in landing him some of the bigger roles he played in film. Commercially successful films like Atonement, Star Trek: Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave, and The Imitation Game were just a few examples of how well he has been able to capture the attention of audiences and receive accolades from his peers.
Unlike other film stars that choose to distance themselves from their TV past, Benedict Cumberbatch never spurned the industry that helped his star to rise. Television acting roles he chose to accept include everything from voice-over work on The Simpsons to the hugely popular Sherlock series. Just as Beyonce fans are called the “Beyhive” and Lady Gaga calls her fans “Little Monsters,” Benedict’s fans have coined the name “Cumberbitches” to proclaim how much they love this British-born actor- whether it’s for his roles on the big screen or on TV.
10. Billy Bob Thornton
Billy Bob Thornton is an Academy Award-winning actor that has been in a number of hugely successful films. From Armageddon to Monster’s Ball to Bad Santa, it seems he is the type of actor that can play any sort of character. However, he doesn’t limit himself to the big screen. Although he won Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Film at the Golden Globes for his role in the first season of Fargo, it was his minuscule role in The Big Bang Theory that really showed audiences how down to Earth he can be.
While the show has had a number of different actors make cameos throughout its successful run on television, even the regular cast members were surprised at Billy Bob Thornton’s willingness to join the cast for a single episode. In a behind-the-scenes interview shown on The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Eighth Season DVD, he gave a little insight into why he took this low paying TV job. He stated, “I said in an interview that my mom’s favorite show was The Big Bang Theory. So [Executive Producer] Chuck Lorre got a hold of my manager and said, ‘Would you consider doing a guest spot for your mom?’ And I said absolutely, because I’ll do anything for my mom.”
9. Reese Witherspoon
Reese Witherspoon is an Academy Award-winning actress that has been in a number of commercially successful films, like the Legally Blonde series and Walk the Line. While she often plays in feel-good films like Sweet Home Alabama, her portrayal in Wild showed she is more than just a one-trick pony. Although everyone can agree that she has true skill as an actress, audiences secretly adore when she plays a not-so-smart blonde vixen.
Taking advantage of this lovable character feature, she played a surprising role on the television series Friends. While Christina Applegate had already played Rachel’s sister, Reese Witherspoon joined the cast for a guest spot as Rachel’s “Other sister.” While it may not have brought in the same beaucoup bucks as some of her film roles, it did give audiences a small taste of the ditsy and spoiled character we love to see her play.
8. Lucy Liu
While Lucy Liu has been lucky enough to achieve roles in film that aren’t typically meant for only Asian actors, the industry hasn’t yet evolved to include her as a leading lady in regular romantic comedies or dramas. While Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon are the go-to actresses for those types of films, it will probably be awhile before we see Lucy Liu in a starring role like that.
Instead, she’s been happy enough to star alongside other leading actresses in hit films like the Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill film series. With very limited options available for Asian actresses in Hollywood, it’s no wonder she decided to take a job on the television series, Elementary. While it may not have the pay scale or glamour of the big screen, Lucy Liu has made a definite impression with audiences as a female version of Dr. Watson.
7. Matthew McConaughey
Ever since his breakout role in Dazed and Confused, Matthew McConaughey has definitely been an actor to watch. While he won an Oscar for his starring role in Dallas Buyers Club, fans still associate him with his infamous line from his first film, “Alright, alright, alright.” The epitome of an A-list actor and Hollywood heartthrob, fans and critics alike were shocked by the announcement he would be playing a role in a television series, True Detective.
However, with a much shorter work schedule than his film roles, a stellar storyline, and the ability to work alongside Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey not only accepted the role but excelled at it. Bringing true legitimacy to the series, audiences were privy to watching his genius on the small screen with amazement. In addition, while actors often land endorsement deals due to their film and television success, McConaughey’s commercials for Lincoln became an actual TV spot in themselves. Lincoln released a statement attributing a huge surge in Lincoln sales to the massively popular Matthew McConaughey television ad campaign.
6. Rachel McAdams
As the Queen of romantic chick flicks, Rachel McAdams became the world’s favorite woman to watch fall in love with films like The Time Traveler’s Wife, Aloha, The Vow, and The Notebook. So, when it was announced she was going to play a hardcore detective in the second season of HBO’s True Detective, fans wondered whether or not she could perform at the standard Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey set in the award-winning first season. While some actors turn to television because they need the available acting role, Rachel McAdams seemed to want the world to know that she can play outside her typecast film persona.
5. Woody Harrelson
Although Woody Harrelson was first introduced to audiences through television, he has come a long way since we first saw him on Cheers. While often thought of as a free spirited individual with a fun-loving heart, he doesn’t shy away from portraying dark characters in film. Whether it was his role in Natural Born Killers or No Country for Old Men, he has more than proven he can play in roles outside of any specific genre.
When he signed on to play alongside Matthew McConaughey, audiences knew they were in store for a real treat. In an interview with Collider, Harrelson was asked why he would take a TV role and he responded in part by saying, “I had already worked with HBO on Game Change. It’s a privilege to work with them. The other part of that is I just love the people involved. I love Matthew. He’s my brother…”
4. Colin Farrell
While Rachel McAdams may have used her role on Season 2 of True Detective to show audiences a different side to her acting persona, Colin Farrell’s detective character was a little too close for comfort to the real actor. Known for his partying and drinking habits on and off the big screen, it wasn’t as if he needed to show audiences that he could play an alcoholic detective with drug tendencies. However, with the success and notoriety of the first season of True Detective, it’s plausible he took the TV role to breathe new life into his professional career. While his portrayal of Ray Velcoro didn’t quite lead to the huge success obtained by the show’s former cast members of season 1, it did add another credit to his long list of acting roles.
3. Vince Vaughn
Vince Vaughn is mostly known for his comedic roles in films like Wedding Crashers and The Internship. While he has acted in a handful of more serious roles, it’s rare for audiences to see him as a dramatic actor. Since critics weren’t too friendly after his portrayal of Norman Bates in the remake of Psycho, it stands to reason that he had something to prove in regard to his acting ability. What better way to dive into a serious role than to partake in an already-successful series for HBO? Playing the “bad guy” with a heart of gold, fans got to see a different side to the actor they thought they knew so well.
2. Viola Davis
The 2016 Oscars caused an inordinate amount of controversy, since many actors spoke out against the awards show for failing to recognize actors of color. However, this isn’t exactly a new theme for the Oscars, and it is something that Viola Davis is all too familiar with. Meryl Streep actually famously begged Hollywood to give Viola Davis a role after remarking on her stellar performance in the film Doubt. Although she did wind up winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a maid in the film The Help, she made numerous comments on how difficult it is to find a quality role in Hollywood as an African American woman.
While this may be true in film, there are some television creators that are much more willing to include someone like Viola Davis as their leading lady in TV. This was definitely the case when Viola was cast in Shonda Rhimes’ television series, How to Get Away with Murder. While she may have gone into it thinking, “it’s better to take a TV role than no role at all,” the numerous accolades and critical acclaim that came from her television performance has done more for her career than any paycheck she may have received for her big screen work.
1. Terrence Howard
Terrence Howard has been in a number of hugely successful films throughout his professional career, including films like The Butler and Iron Man. However, it’s been the headlines he’s made in the tabloids over his personal life that has overshadowed his acting ability. Allegations of abuse by his third wife were made public, including some recordings leaked to the press with definite signs of verbal abuse, and she ended up filing for divorce while she was pregnant with their first child. Although the script and premise for Empire was no doubt a huge draw in Terrence Howard’s decision to play a television character, one has to wonder whether or not he chose the role to deflect attention from his personal life drama.