In this age, we no longer get surprised when we hear about the astronomical salaries of TV and film stars. It’s expected. Considering that we spend almost all of our time watching TV and movies, hearing of the actor’s multi-million-dollar payouts makes perfect sense to us. It’s par for the course. But the insane salaries of today are made more incredible when you track the growth of the actor’s paychecks from job to job. We all know that the stars of Friends, by the end of their run, were making 1 million dollars per episode, and we know that the nerds of The Big Bang Theory are making that now. But it’s more remarkable when you consider that they were once making $60,000 per episode. While the stars on this list may never have been making the average TV actor rate of $15-25K per episode, they certainly came a long way from where they started out.
Film is the same type of thing. If we compare similar-sized films, we can compare where an actor is today to where they were early on. Some actors earn their big paychecks in a few years, whereas others take decades. The goal of this list is simply to gawk at the fortunes of others. We’ll look at the salaries and make sure to consider all the factors involved. After all, Jonah Hill only made $60K on The Wolf of Wall Street, but he was already a very big actor at that point. He just wanted to be in the film. We’ll try to only use numbers that are representative of the star’s actual value at the time as best we can. Technically, since almost all actors start off earning very little and move up, we could include almost every big actor in here. For that reason, we focused on the best and most shocking only.
15. Keri Russell
When Keri Russell first broke through, she did it on the show Felicity and without earning much. Prior to that role, Russell had appeared in a few shows and did some work in film, such as in Honey I Blew Up the Kid. However, no one really knew who she was. In those early days of her career, Russell was earning between $20,000 and $30,000 per episode—standard pay for a newbie. After the great success of the show’s first season, Russell went to the studios asking for more money. It’s unclear if her demands were met to the fullest, but she did get a raise. Years later, Russell was back on one of the most popular shows on television, The Americans. We aren’t sure what her salary started out as with this one, but we do know that she was making $100,000 per episode in 2015. Today, Russell is making $150,000 an episode. That’s quite the progression from 20 years ago.
14. Ryan Gosling
In this age, you throw Ryan Gosling in your film and you’re gonna have a good time. Not only is the star a great actor, but he’s also marketable. His films do incredibly well at the box office and everyone loves him for different reasons. However, it wasn’t always that way. Back when Gosling did Half Nelson, a film he was nominated for an Oscar for, he only earned about $3,200 in total. That’s not a typo. Just recently, when Gosling took one of the lead roles in The Nice Guys, he earned $7 million. We don’t know exactly how much he earned from La La Land, but we can safely say that his performance and the award recognition that followed has made him worth even more in the future.
13. Mindy Kaling
It didn’t take long for Mindy Kaling to show how talented and indispensable she was on The Office. While her character may have taken a while to grow on the audience, the comedian showed that she had a knack for writing as well and went on to work behind the camera while her character was becoming more central to the cast in front of it. When Kaling was first brought on, she was making about $20,000 per episode. Compare that to the main man, Steve Carrell, who was making $175,000 per episode. Well, Kaling has done well for herself since then. Now she’s the star and creator of her own show, The Mindy Project and she brings in close to $150,000 per episode—almost Carrell level.
12. Jamie Dornan And Dakota Johnson
Despite what we think of Fifty Shades of Grey, the people who buy tickets to the theater have spoken with their wallets. When Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson were brought on to play the lead roles, neither were particularly well-known and their salaries reflected that. Earning between $150,000 and $250,000, the two stars helped make one of 2015’s biggest films. When it came time to renegotiate the contracts for the sequels, the discussions were messier than the studios envisioned. At first, the studio said they had a standard franchise structure to the contracts, but both actors knew they could wrangle in a little more due to the huge success of the first film. In the end, both actors signed on for hefty contracts worth about $7 million per film.
11. Chris Pratt
Most of the lesser-known cast of Parks and Recreation started off by making something in the $50,000 per episode range, but we only know where Amy Poehler ended up at the end of the show (about $200,000 per episode). We do know, however, that Chris Pratt‘s made quite the jump in pay on film in a short period of time for his film work. For his work on Delivery Man, he earned $180,000. This was upped to $400,000 for Her, $750,000 for Mr. Payback, $900,000 for The Lego Movie, and a massive $1.5 million for Guardians of the Galaxy. For his Guardians role, Pratt took home a much larger piece of the piece than most first-time Marvel Cinematic Universe actors, but it was peanuts compared to his pay grade today. We don’t know how much Pratt took home from Jurassic World, but the role was connected to his future earnings. He originally signed on for The Passengers at $10 million, but there was a stipulation in the contract that, if the dinosaur flick did well, he would receive a bump in salary. Jurassic Park did do well and Pratt earned an additional $2 million, bringing the total to $12 million for the film.
10. Tariji Penda Henson
Times have changed for Tariji Penda Henson. She’s become one of the most recognizable actresses in the world and has earned awards and accolades to help increase her pay grade. On television, Henson first broke out on The Division. From 2002-2004, she was earning about $22,000 per episode. Later, on Person of Interest, her salary per episode more than doubled. Today, even though there’s a lot of discussion on how she deserves to earn more, or that others deserve to be paid less, Henson is a very rich woman. For her role as Cookie Lyon, she earns a cool $175,000 per episode. Not bad for a show that’s only been on for two years.
9. Scarlett Johansson
If we could go back and nail down Scarlett Johansson‘s salary in Lost in Translation, this entry might even be more shocking. Still, compared to what the A-lister makes these days, even her first appearance as Natasha Romanova in Iron Man is a pittance. In that first flick, Johansson earned $400,000. She actually lucked out a bit because the Marvel Cinematic Universe ended up toning down their initial rates after this film. Now compare that to Johansson’s most recent payout for Ghost in the Shell. For this role, she was paid $17.5 million up front. That’s not a solid raise for less than 10 years of work.
8. Kerry Washington
Without trying to disparage either her success or her talent, the question about Kerry Washington‘s apparent “low pay” is crazy to us. Not only did she have a monumental rise to the top of Hollywood’s pay grade, but she also did it without ever really being a star. Of everyone on this list, she’s probably the most unexpected entrant. First of all, Washington is wildly talented. There’s no question about that. In 2012, when she signed on as the lead of the TV show Scandal, she commanded a hefty pay day of $75,000 per episode. The show has seen huge ratings and generated plenty of buzz since its debut, but after a few short years, she’s already making $240,000 per episode. This is an incredible increase in a short period of time. Most actors who experience that kind of jump, the same actors many speak of when they use Washington’s name as an example of a pay gap, spent a lot longer working their way up.
7. Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson has long been considered a great actor. He’s been nominated for numerous awards and has been a draw at the box office for many years. However, when he was first brought on to do Taken, he wasn’t necessarily an action actor and he wasn’t commanding massive paychecks. The team behind the first Taken film, knowing it was a bit of a stretch and could fail at the box office, offered him only $5 million for the role. ONLY! This was a good chunk of money, even for Neeson. But that number kept multiplying for each subsequent film, culminating in a $20-million payout for Taken 3. Not only did Neeson earn a killing on each of these films, they also rejuvenated his career and allowed him to land several other big roles. Everyone wins in the end.
6. Viola Davis
Now that Viola Davis finally won that elusive Academy Award, we have a sneaking suspicion that she won’t be talking about the wage gap any longer. She’ll command one of the heavier price tags in the business moving forward, as she should. Back in 2014, when Davis was signed on to play Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder, she was already a well-known commodity in the industry, so she started out earning about $80,000 per episode. After only a few short seasons, Davis’ salary was increased to $250,000 per episode. Even though this salary is compared to other actors from shows like Modern Family, The Middle, Last Man Standing, and Grey’s Anatomy, all of those shows have been running a lot longer, and, as we’ve shown for some, the stars started out earning around the same or less in the beginning.
5. Dwayne Johnson
Last year, Dwayne Johnson was the highest paid actor in the business. He doesn’t necessarily make the most per film, but he works his tail off and does multiple big films and TV shows per year. When Johnson first made the transition to film, he was already a well-known star from his wrestling career. Still, he had never proved that he could lead a film successfully. His first leading role was in The Mummy spin-off, The Scorpion King. For this role, Johnson was reportedly paid $5.5 million, a pretty nice haul to start with. He hovered around that rate for a while, but then he broke out in 2014. It started with Hercules and continued with 2015’s San Andreas. On both films, Johnson earned $15 million. He then signed on to star in the TV show, Ballers, for $450,000 per episode. He did 20 episodes and also signed on to star in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle for an astounding $19 million, one of the highest upfront totals given to an actor in recent history. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy either. We’re pals.
4. Modern Family Cast
When Modern Family was first being cast, the main adult actors were all signed on for between $30,000 and $60,000 an episode, with some of the higher profile actors bringing in more than the unknowns. After the third season, the cast was making about $55,000-$60,000 and they grouped together, a la Friends, and demanded a significant pay increase. There was a denial, a hold-out, and a production delay. Finally, the studios agreed to the increase. After that, the cast members were making about $175,000 per episode, a number that has since increased to close to $350,000 per episode.
3. Jennifer Lawrence
Now that she’s one of the biggest stars in the world, Jennifer Lawrence commands a salary that no one else gets. Some basement critics like to suggest that Lawrence is overrated because of a hive mind internet mentality or because it’s trendy, but the multiple awards and overwhelming box office success she’s had in her young career prove otherwise. When Lawrence started out on Winter’s Bone, a role that she earned an Academy Award nomination for, she was earning $3,000 per week. Later, on the first Hunger Games film, Lawrence earned $500,000 up front and received another $500,000 in bonuses. Now, compare that to her most recent payday for playing one of the leads in Passengers. For that part, Lawrence earned $20 million. Because Lawrence has been critical of the gender wage gap in Hollywood, some people suggested that Lawrence was made into a hypocrite on Passengers because her co-star, Chris Pratt, made less than her. Now, we love us some Pratt, but to suggest that he should command the same paycheck as Lawrence is about as funny as it is sad.
2. Ellen Pompeo
When the salaries of the big TV stars were leaked, there was a lot of talk about the wage gap between black actors and white actors. Though this is a discussion that should be done, it’s been a bit blown out of proportion with stars like Ellen Pompeo. We may not even think that Pompeo is the greatest actress alive, but to suggest that she shouldn’t be earning more than the stars of Black-ish or How to Get Away with Murder is foolish. Both of those shows debuted in 2014, three years ago. Let’s pump the brakes a bit here. When Pompeo started out on Grey’s Anatomy in 2005, she was earning less than $100,000, just like the stars of those other shows. Over the last 12 years, she has been able to increase her salary. Today, the incredible $400,000 she earns per episode is a result of her leading a show that’s proven to be one of the most popular and successful shows in TV history.
1. Lauren Graham And Alexis Bledel
Back when Gilmore Girls was getting off the ground, both stars, Alexis Bledel and Lauren Graham, were given about $30,000 to $50,000 per episode. The show ended up running for seven years and became hugely popular among women. We would say that men loved it too, but we seriously don’t know one single male that ever turned it on, not that there was anything wrong with it if they did. Either way, Netflix got the idea to do a revival, a small miniseries, that would reunite the cast. Apparently, the salary demands of the stars were so astronomical that the show creators had to think long and hard if it was the right thing to do. They decided to move forward and pay the stars. Then the numbers leaked. Both actresses received $750,000 per episode. It’s possible that these two were paid so much because they both speak four times faster than the average human. It was only fair to pay them four times more than the average star of a TV show.