How do we gauge what kind of money an actor is worth? Is it their ability to draw in audiences, like the Chris Pratts of the world, their excellence in acting, like the Meryl Streeps, or both, like the Leonardo DiCaprios? It mostly depends on what the film and the filmmakers are trying to accomplish. Lately, the question of worth has come up with several actresses in the industry, especially after the Sony leak revealed many female star salaries were less than their male peers. While we don't want this list to evolve into the sticky mess that is the gender wage gap in Hollywood, we will be discussing the salaries, and gender is relevant in some scenarios.
Even though we like to discuss the variances in acting salaries, and we even commend actors for taking less money to make certain films, we'll not forget that all the actors on this list are very, very rich. They aren’t superheroes for making less millions each year, but it is interesting when and why they choose to make less than normal. Up front, we want to eliminate one category of acting salaries that often shows up on these types of lists. Each year, there are many actors who are paid less upfront only to receive backend compensation on colossal films. We won’t be including this group because it's silly. That's like saying these actors were almost paid very little, but, in the end, they were paid tens of millions of dollars. We want to include only the actors who started out by getting paid very little and ended by getting paid very little. Maybe these roles will tell us something about the actors who chose them, what drives them or what type of roles they do for love and not for money. Here are 15 actors who were paid way less than they deserved.
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15 Matthew McConaughey, $200K – Dallas Buyer's Club
Even though Matthew McConaughey did get a backend deal for Dallas Buyer's Club, we chose to include him and this role for a few reasons. One, the film only made $55 million at the box office, so it's not like he broke the bank with the backend deal. Up front, the actor reportedly only received $200,000. "Only." Heh. Well, considering he turned down a role that would pay $15 million dollar plus a hefty backend deal on Magnum P.I., the fact that McConaughey chose Dallas Buyer's Club shows just how committed he was to changing his career. Obviously, the decision proved fruitful in many ways, especially considering he won an Academy Award for Best Actor.
14 George Clooney, $120K - Good Night, and Good Luck
When George Clooney took on Good Night, and Good Luck, it was quite obvious that this was a dig for an Oscar. Plenty of actors do it, so it's nothing to be ashamed of. Plus, the guy won, so who can blame him? Clooney has made his film-picking an art form. He and many others in the industry do paying gigs and pleasure gigs. Ocean's Eleven is a paying gig. Good Night, and Good Luck is a pleasure gig. Clooney starred, wrote and directed Good Night, and Good Luck, and he did all of it for only $120,000. That's probably just enough to pay a monthly payment or two on his second house's mortgage.
13 Ethan Hawke, Percent Only – The Purge
Even though we said that backend deals were not what this is about, Ethan Hawke's deal when he worked on The Purge makes him seem legitimately homeless, so we included it. Hawke said about the role and his arrangement with the director, Jason Blum, "There were no perks... No trailer, no driver, no BS, just a great role, a great director. Hell, on The Purge, I slept on his couch the whole shoot." Now, Hawke made out like a bandit when the purge did well, but like, this guy's rich. Get a hotel room. Or a motel even. I feel like we should start a Kickstarter to get Hawke on his feet again or something.
12 Diane Keaton, Way Less than Nicholson – Something's Gotta Give
In 2003, there was no Sony leak, so we had no idea what actors were making unless they told us. While we never learned what Diane Keaton made on Something's Gotta Give, we do know that she made considerably less than Jack Nicolson. Now, were not about to debate and compare the legacies of these two phenomenal actors, but it's not like Keaton is just some nobody next to Jack either. She is a four-time Academy Award nominee and a winner. She's been in countless quality films and she's a great draw for all ages. Not only did Nicholson earn much more than Keaton upfront, he also got a backend deal which made him a considerable amount of money on the $250+ million the film brought in at the box office.
11 Leonardo DiCaprio, $2M – J. Edgar
Leonardo DiCaprio is probably the biggest star on the planet. He may not be the highest paid or even the most successful in terms of accolades, but everyone knows him and almost everyone loves him. Unsurprisingly, Leo has a standard fee to appear in movies and it's a lot of money: 20 millions of money. He doesn't always ask for that number though. Take Inception for instance. Leo took a huge frontend pay cut to get more on the backend. In the industry, we call this the mullet. Well, some people do. We've heard like three people say that. Either way, the mullet worked out well for him. He made over $50 million in the end. After that, however, Leo took a truly massive pay cut to appear in J. Edgar, getting only $2 million (he made less in Django Unchained but he wasn't the main star in that film). This move showed that Leo was trying his darndest to get into a role where he could win an Oscar. Though this film and this role didn't work out for him, it was just another step toward making his career one off the most impressive out there.
10 Chris Evans, $300K – Captain America
Marvel has a stepping stone type of pay grade for their superhero films. You get paid peanuts (comparatively) for your first film, but that pay goes up for each sequel and joint movie you do, like The Avengers. Now, an actor like Chris Hemsworth (Thor) may have made less than Chris Evans (Captain America), but Hemsworth was virtually unknown when he first got started with Marvel. Conversely, Evans may not have been the star he is today, but he was a well-known actor and had done some quality work prior to putting on his spandex. For his first dip into the Marvel pool For his first dip into Captain America's pool, Evans made $300,000. For comparison's sake, his salary went up to about $2.5 million for The Avengers, half of what Scarlett Johannsson made on the same film, just in case you were keeping track.
9 Charlize Theron, Way Less than Hemsworth – The Huntsman
Charlize Theron might be the one woman out there who was smiling when the Sony leak came out. She took a look, noticed that she was making $10 million less than her co-star Chris Hemsworth on The Huntsman, grabbed her Oscar and marched into the production offices, demanding a $10 million increase in salary to meet Hemsworth's pay. The studios, surprisingly, obliged. So, now you're thinking, Theron got paid a lot then? Why is she on this list? Well, yeah, but originally she was getting less than she deserved, that's why she's here. The reason why she deserved this increased pay was because she carried the first film, was equally billed alongside Hemsworth and she's a best actress winner. She's also the most beautiful human being on the face of the earth. What the hell else is there for her to prove?
8 Will Ferrell, Not Much – Everything Must Go
Will Ferrell is best known for starring in big budget comedies. Love him or hate him, the comedian brings in big audiences and has a huge following, so his salary demands are quite high. When he took on the film Everything Must Go, however, Ferrell ignored his typical salary and took a measly paycheck—by his standards—to appear in the film. Sure, it didn’t do as well as everyone was hoping, but Ferrell did a commendable job. The film's total budget was $10 million. That's usually what Ferrell charges to appear in a film, so you can imagine how much of a cut he took.
7 Jonah Hill, $60K – The Wolf of Wall Street
Jonah Hill wanted in The Wolf of Wall Street so badly that he increased his odds of being cast by only asking for the SAG (Screen Actor's Guild) minimum allowed salary of $60,000. At the point of filming, Hill was an established actor coming off of an Academy Award nomination for Money Ball and had legions of fans, so it was a no-brainer for the casting director. When asked about why, Hill said, "It's not about money for me. None of this s*** is about money… I want to make money to pay my rent, and hopefully have a family one day and have kids and stuff." For Hill, it was all about having the opportunity to work with Martin Scorsese. "I would sell my house and give him all my money to work for [Scorsese]," he said. "I would have done anything in the world. I would do it again in a second."
6 Jennifer Lawrence, 7% – American Hustle
We've decided to include Jennifer Lawrence in this list because there was a big to-do over her salary on American Hustle. When the Sony leak came out, Lawrence took to the Internet, writing an essay about what was revealed to her in the leak. It was apparent that she had made quite a bit less than her male co-stars. Every one of the big stars got a backend deal, a percentage of profits. Lawrence got 7%, whereas her male co-stars, Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper, each got 9%. There was something rotten in Denmark. Lawrence wrote at length about the disparity, but there was something funny about her numbers. They didn't include how much work was put in. The major actors on the film all worked about 45 days on set, except for Lawrence. She only worked 19 days. This means that, in the end, Lawrence actually made more money per days worked than anyone else. In fact, the only person who got screwed in pay was our next entry.
5 Amy Adams, 7% for a Lead - American Hustle
Like Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams only received 7% on the backend of her salary on American Hustle, while the male stars all got 9%. The major difference between Adams and Lawrence is that Adams also worked on set more than twice what Lawrence did, the same amount as the males in the cast. Therefore, Adams made considerably less per day than each of the males and Lawrence, who made the most. It's not like Adams was chopped liver either. She had been nominated four times for an Academy Award prior to American Hustle and, worst of all, she was the leading actress in the film. She made less than Lawrence who was supporting cast and Renner who was supporting cast and a lesser-known actor.
4 Ryan Gosling, $1K/week – Half Nelson
Ryan Gosling certainly wasn't the richest actor when he was cast for a part in Half Nelson. It's actually pretty remarkable that he was willing to accept only $1000 per week for the part when you consider he was just coming off of some huge success with The Notebook. The role earned him some decent award buzz, which has helped him get into bigger and better roles. We'll see if Gosling ever goes back to the indie film scene now that he's such a bankable star. He does seem to thrive in those intense character parts.
3 Jessica Chastain, $100/day – Take Shelter
We've intentionally avoided looking at actors who were not paid a lot because they were small-time actors, but we needed to make an exception here. It shouldn't surprise anyone that new or inexperienced actors were paid very little on their early films, even if they were incredible. So why is Jessica Chastain on here for Take Shelter? Well, if the director Jeff Nichols had waited to cast Chastain, say even six months, her price tag would have been much, much higher. Some reports suggest that Chastain was only getting paid $100 per day on the set of this film. That's insane considering how much she was making just 12 months removed from that film, but, when she gained momentum, she did it quickly. She filmed Take Shelter, then jumped over to Coriolanus, then The Tree of Life, then The Help and then Texas Killing Fields. This all happened in one year. She was nominated for an Academy Award for The Help and again the following year for her starring role in Zero Dark Thirty. Chastain ain't cheap anymore.
2 Arnold Schwarzenegger, Zero Dollars – Maggie
Even though it seems rare in this money-hungry industry, there are actors out there who do things for the love of the craft. Arnold Schwarzenegger may not be the action star he once was, but he's still a box-office draw and a hell of an actor. That's why it was so surprising to see him do the film Maggie, an independent movie with a budget of less than $1.5 million. But Arnie explained that roles are no longer about money for him. "I didn't take anything," he said when speaking about his pay on Maggie. "When I read it, I knew I had to do it… It is more vulnerable than any role I have played, more real, more emotional. You’re used to seeing me play the ubermensch, the action hero bullets can’t seem to hit… In Maggie, I am the everyman … dealing with the most basic concerns – protecting his family."
1 Bill Murray, Negative $66K – Rushmore
Nowadays, Bill Murray is a Wes Anderson film veteran, but back when Rushmore was being made, Murray had never heard of the director. It was his agent who first suggested that he read the part because they loved Anderson's first film, Bottle Rocket, so dearly. The character that Murray would go on to play, Mr. Blume, was written specifically with him in mind, but the inexperienced filmmakers didn't think the actor would ever accept. Murray read the part, loved it and agreed to do the film, working on scale. This means that Murray would take the minimum pay that SAG would allow, which, in this case, was about $9,000. It gets better. After the film had been shot, Disney productions asked Anderson to cut out a hugely expensive helicopter scene that cost about $75,000 to film. This was a crushing blow to Anderson and his empty pockets, so Murray gave him a blank check to cover the losses. That means that, technically, Murray paid negative $66,000 to act in Rushmore. That's a good friend to have.
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