Taraji P. Henson Puts Hollywood Pay Gap on Blast, Details Offensive ‘Benjamin Button’ Salary in New Memoir
Hollywood’s troubling pay gap problem doesn’t only apply to gender; it also applies to people of color. And when you’re both a woman and a person of color, that salary discrepancy can be twice as offensive. Just ask Empire star Taraji P. Henson, who detailed her egregious experiences with Hollywood’s pay gap in her new memoir, which reveals that she was paid about two percent of what Brad Pitt made on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — and that’s just the start.
Although the acclaimed actress went on to (rightfully) receive an Oscar nomination for her crucial supporting role in the David Fincher film, Henson earned far, far, far less than her co-stars. The Guardian shared excerpts from Henson’s new memoir, in which she describes her Benjamin Button salary as “the equivalent of sofa change,” and reveals that she — unlike her co-stars — had to pay for her own hotel and expenses during the shoot:
Both Brad and Cate got millions. Me? With bated breath, I sat by the phone for hours, waiting for Vince [her 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.
Even though she had a substantial role in Fincher’s film (certainly notable enough to garner an Oscar nod), Henson was treated as though her talents were not as valuable as co-stars with more recognizable names like Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett — despite acclaimed roles in Hustle & Flow, Talk to Me and Four Brothers.
Henson appears next in the Oscar season drama Hidden Figures, which also stars Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, and tells the true, unsung story of Nasa’s black female scientists. The actress won a Golden Globe earlier this year for her part on Empire, and though more opportunities have become available to her now, Henson says she took the Benjamin Button gig — insulting pay and all — because of the lack of meaningful roles for black women:
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.
As it turns out, Henson wound up getting replaced on another film. According to her memoir, the role of the pregnant Russian sex worker in St. Vincent was originally written for her by writer and director Ted Melfi. Henson says Naomi Watts was cast in the Bill Murray dramedy instead “because someone with the ability to green-light a film couldn’t see black women beyond a very limited purview he or she thought ‘fit’ audience expectations.”
Melfi went on to cast Henson in Hidden Figures, which he directed from a script co-written with Allison Schroeder. Still, Henson throws some great shade about the role that could have been:
It was a meaty gig. I would have loved it. Alas, I couldn’t get served at that particular restaurant.
Someone’s definitely getting served now.