A common complaint among us civilians is about the ridiculously high paychecks that actors make per movie. To be fair, when a movie grosses hundreds of millions of dollars, it only makes sense that its stars– who are often the primary driving force behind a movie’s marketability– get a pretty hefty chunk of those profits.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are actually times when actors are underpaid for their work, even among mainstream Hollywood fare. Sometimes it’s entirely by choice, as an actor takes on a role in a smaller film because they are passionate about the material. Other times, an actor simply isn’t established enough yet to demand a higher paycheck, and has no choice but to work for relative peanuts if it means a potential breakthrough role.
To be clear, most of the paydays on this list aren’t going to garner much pity from average joes. We should be so lucky to “only” earn high-five-figure incomes for a few months’ work. Such roles are included because it was a low payout relative to the project or what the actor’s co-stars earned. But this list does indeed include paydays that are indisputably low for the amount of time the actor spent making the movie, and/or how many millions of dollars they helped it make.
Here are 20 Actors Who Got Paid Next To Nothing For Huge Roles.
20. Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese is one of those filmmakers that every actor dreams of working with. It’s an honor that isn’t lost on the companies that make Scorsese’s movies, as it’s often used as leverage to get actors to work for way less money than they’d normally get.
By the time The Wolf of Wall Street went into production, Jonah Hill was already a proven, bankable star who also had an Oscar nomination under his belt for Moneyball. Still, being able to do a Martin Scorsese movie was an exciting enough prospect that Hill agreed to do it for a relatively paltry $60,000.
What makes that paycheck seem even more minuscule is the fact that Wolf had a budget of over $100 million, and Jordan Belfort– the real-life stock broker who Leonardo DiCaprio portrays in the film– netted a cool million dollars just for the rights to his story.
19. Bill Murray – Rushmore
After being one of Hollywood’s top comedy stars in the ’80s and early-90s, Bill Murray’s career dulled a bit as that decade wore on, with the legendary actor seeming to stop caring all that much about what roles he took.
That all changed when Murray appeared in the 1998 Wes Anderson movie Rushmore, which reinvigorated the actor’s career and saw him begin to favor more sophisticated roles. Murray was among the first A-list Hollywood actors of the era to take a major pay cut in order to appear in a small-budget film, with the actor only netting “scale” for his role– which came to about $9,000.
In addition to taking a huge pay cut, Murray also reportedly helped to haul equipment for free and gave Anderson a blank check to cover the costs of a scene that the production company refused to pay extra for.
18. Harrison Ford – Star Wars: A New Hope
We all know the story of how little faith anyone other than George Lucas initially had in Star Wars, which resulted in a fairly small budget and a lot of people having to work their butts off for pennies on the dollar. Still, the budget for A New Hope was $11 million– which is over $40 million adjusted for inflation– which isn’t exactly a shoestring budget for a 1970s sci-fi film.
Of course, it’s often the actors who are expected to work the most for the least in such cases, and the cast of Star Wars wasn’t paid nearly enough for how much time and effort they put in. Harrison Ford, for instance, earned the absurdly small sum of $10,000 for helping to create one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history.
17. Gal Gadot – Wonder Woman
As stated in the introduction, Gal Gadot isn’t going to find too many people who feel bad for her six-figure income for making Wonder Woman, especially since it instantly catapulted her into massive worldwide fame. But looking at the big picture, $300,000 is a pretty sorry payday.
Even though Justice League has struggled a bit at the box office– as much as $600 million worldwide is “struggling”– Wonder Woman was released at a time when superhero movies, Marvel or DC, were guaranteed to be record-breaking successes. Despite the so-called gamble of a female-led superhero movie, nobody was expecting WW to be a flop, and paying the star of a potential billion-dollar movie so little was a joke.
Maybe it’s because Gadot was still a rising star at the time?
16. Jeff Daniels – Dumb and Dumber
Before you lose your mind at the suggestion that $50,000 wasn’t enough money for Jeff Daniels to be in a Farrelly brothers gross-out comedy in which his most famous scene involves explosive diarrhea, and point out that nobody expected it to make hundreds of millions of dollars, there is one important factor to consider: how much co-star Jim Carrey got paid.
Sure, Jim Carrey was one of the biggest stars on the planet at the time of Dumb and Dumber. Yes, his involvement in the movie is a big part of why it was such a massive success. But Jeff Daniels was hardly an unknown, and he did just as much work in making the movie entertaining as Carrey did. So the fact that Carrey got to cash a whopping $7 million check for Dumb and Dumber while Daniels couldn’t even crack six figures is, well, dumb.
15. Michelle Williams – All the Money in the World
The re-shooting of scenes to add Christopher Plummer to All the Money in the World following Kevin Spacey’s removal from the role resulted in a whopping $1.5 million payday for Mark Wahlberg.
Michelle Williams’ pay for those re-shoots? $1,000.
Yes, that’s thousand, not million. The defense against that discrepancy is that Williams’ contract required her to do any necessary re-shoots, while Wahlberg’s did not. So Wahlberg was in a position to negotiate, but Williams had no choice. Still, Williams’ being required to participate in the re-shoots doesn’t make it right that she was given an insultingly low sum of money for the same amount of work as Wahlberg, even if Wahlberg did ultimately donate his paycheck to Time’s Up in her name.
14. Corey Feldman – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Based on his recent allegations of being abused by several men in his childhood, there was a much more tragic subtext to Corey Feldman’s career taking a hit as he entered the 1990s than simply being another ’80s has-been. One role that Feldman accepted for a quick paycheck as he was hitting that decline was voicing the purple-masked Donatello in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
Being told that the movie was likely going to struggle and would probably never be more than a quickly-forgotten direct-to-video film, Feldman accepted the very low paycheck of only $1,500 for his role, despite being the biggest name in the cast.
13. George Clooney – Good Night, and Good Luck
To say that Good Night, and Good Luck was a passion project for George Clooney would be an understatement. He was only paid $1 up front to write, direct, and act in the film, he mortgaged his home to help finance the project, and, due to the serious injury he previously sustained filming Syriana, he couldn’t even get the proper medical clearance to get health insurance for the movie.
With major blockbusters like Ocean’s Eleven, The Perfect Storm, and Three Kings behind him, Clooney was at a point in his career where he had his pick of both roles and probably paychecks, but decided he wanted to alternate fun popcorn movies with more challenging fare like Good Night— even if it meant actually going into debt to make them.
12. Sean William Scott – American Pie
In the’ 70s and ’80s, raunchy comedies were all the rage, and many funny movies would have revealing scenes in them for no reason– even movies that were basically aimed at teenagers. Teen movies got a bit more sanitized in the ’90s, leaving the raunch to more clearly-defined “adult” comedies.
When American Pie came out in 1999, it was considered a gamble for that generation of young filmgoers. In fact, Universal sold off the international rights to help recoup some of the production costs as it didn’t see it being more than a sleeper hit.
With a budget of $11 million and a cast of little-known actors, it’s not a big surprise that none of the young ensemble were paid millions. But to find out that breakout character Stifler’s actor, Sean William Scott, only made $8,000 to help the movie gross $236 million still seems unfair.
11. Brad Pitt – Thelma & Louise
Brad Pitt spent a few years in the late ’80s paying his dues playing small roles like “Preppy guy at fight” and “Guy with drink at beach.” But that all changed when his part in Thelma & Louise got him noticed by a mainstream audience.
Despite the relatively small role– certainly helped by that famous scene where he is topless and wearing a cowboy hat– Pitt’s career immediately took off after that, appearing in A River Runs Through It, Interview With a Vampire, Seven, and his Oscar-nominated turn in 12 Monkeys within four short years.
Sometimes an actor takes a role for the potential exposure (no pun intended) and not for a down-payment on a mansion, which was certainly the case for Pitt in Thelma— he netted only $9,000 for his shirtless breakthrough despite it being a big-budget, Ridley Scott-directed film.
10. Ryan Gosling – Half Nelson
Ryan Gosling is not only a Mickey Mouse Club alum, but he was in the same cast as Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera. While his peers moved on to music careers, Gosling continued to be a teenage actor, appearing in the TV shows Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Easily transitioning to adult actor, Gosling scored his first lead role at age 20 in the acclaimed Neo-Nazi drama The Believer. He then proved he could excel even in bad movies, earning raves for his role in the stinker Murder By Numbers. His big breakthrough was opposite Rachel McAdams in The Notebook, but rather than capitalizing on his new romantic lead status, he followed that up with indie picture Half-Nelson.
9. Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry
Hilary Swank didn’t have to wait long for her first lead role, starring in The Next Karate Kid at age 20. Through no fault of her own, that didn’t prove to be her star vehicle. In what would become a trend for her career, she soon found that she shone far more brightly in the indie movies she does in between forgettable big-budget fare.
Where Swank first found her indie niche was via her breakthrough, Oscar-winning role in the 1999 drama Boys Don’t Cry. Despite the heavy demands of the role, including her having to lose a dangerous amount of weight, Swank earned only $3,000 for her portrayal of real-life figure Brandon Teena.
8. Jon Heder – Napoleon Dynamite
Much of Hollywood is built on favors, such as when writer/direct Jared Hess got his friend Jon Heder to play the title role in his quirky debut film, Napoleon Dynamite. With a budget of only $400,000, Hess got his friend to play the soon-to-be iconic role for a mere $1,000.
That small paycheck was all well and good when Napoleon Dynamite was just some quirky little indie movie– but once MTV got involved and helped distribute the film, it quickly became a $46 million sleeper hit. Not content leaving things as a low-paying favor, Heder re-negotiated his cut following the film’s surprising success and received and undisclosed percentage of the profits.
Though this is a happier ending for Heder, but it’s likely he still didn’t get what he truly deserved for co-creating one of modern cinema’s most beloved and quotable characters– not to mention doing all of Napoleon’s trademark artwork himself.
7. Mel Gibson – Mad Max
While there are a fair amount of movie franchises still hanging around that started in the ’70s, few can claim to still be around – and be worthy of Best Picture Oscar nominations. That impressive distinction belongs to Mad Max, a franchise that started at the same time as the career of its then-rising star, Mel Gibson.
Though Mel Gibson wasn’t yet an A-list star and Mad Max had yet to prove itself as anything more than a cult action movie, to find out that he only got $15,000 for helping to create such an iconic franchise is surprising.
As a comparison to other breakthrough roles by future action stars, a then-unproven (and barely able to speak English) Arnold Schwarzenegger was paid $250,000 for Conan the Barbarian, and Bruce Willis got $5 million for Die Hard despite primarily being known for soapy TV series Moonlighting.
6. Jamie Lee Curtis – Halloween
The horror movie genre is typically known for movies that have extremely low budgets, and the gritty charm that results from not having tens of millions of dollars to polish them too much. This trend really hit its stride in the ’70s and early ’80s, when future icons like John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Sam Raimi, and Wes Craven pushed the genre into mainstream recognition.
As a result of small production costs, the actors in these classic horror films rarely made much money despite what was often very physically demanding work.
Even the most iconic performances were paid very little for helping to popularize the horror genre.
Jamie Lee Curtis, who has horror movie acting in her DNA from being the daughter of Psycho‘s Janet Leigh, wasn’t even able to cull more than $8,000 for helping to usher in one of horror’s longest-running franchises.
5. Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Seniority dictates that people who have been at a company longer are usually going to make more money than those that haven’t, even if the two people are doing similar jobs. Acting is no different, as the established actors tend to earn more than those with younger careers– even if the two actors are playing equal roles.
That said, $65,000 versus $15 million for two actors in the same movie playing roles of similar importance seems crazy, regardless of who they are. No, Barkhad Abdi shouldn’t have made the same amount of money for his first movie as industry legend Tom Hanks, but that’s quite the discrepancy. It gets worse when you factor in Hanks’ additional bonuses that brought his Captain Phillips paycheck to about $50 million.
4. Joshua Leonard – The Blair Witch Project
Speaking of low-budget horror movies and underpaid horror movie actors, neither have a more famous example than The Blair Witch Project and its cast. Shot for less money than some of the actors on this list even earned ($60,000) and filmed entirely through the handheld cameras of its three stars, The Blair Witch Project only needed to earn six figures to turn a profit– and it ended up bringing home nearly $250 million.
How much of that $60,000 went to the three people who arguably did the most work on the movie? $1,500. For all three for them.
Breaking it all down by hour, that’s not even minimum wage!
Joshua Leonard, who of the three has seen the most post-Blair acting success, took home a ridiculous $500 for the movie despite having to spend a week shooting in the cold woods, outdoors, sleeping in tents.
3. Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Filmmaker Richard Linklatter is nothing if not ambitious, and it’s hard to imagine any other modern-day writer/director having the verve to film a movie over a 12-year time frame as the actors age in real time. But that’s exactly what he did with the acclaimed Boyhood, following a family over twelve years as they navigate divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse, and more.
While the movie is largely built around Mason Evans Jr. as he– and the actor playing him– goes from age six to age eighteen, Boyhood also required various adult actors to film the movie over its protracted production time. The family matriarch was played by Patricia Arquette, who won an Oscar for her role.
2. Chris Evans – Captain America: The First Avenger
It can be argued that nobody knew for sure how big of a hit Iron Man was going to be, and few certainly could’ve predicted it was going to kick off a massive multi-billion-dollar cinematic universe. But by the time Captain America: The First Avenger was in production, it was MCU movie #5, and the last before The Avengers— at that point, Marvel movies were regularly bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars.
So to get Chris Evans to make his debut as Steve Rogers and only pay him 200 grand, even with the promise to gradually increase his pay for each subsequent film, was pretty shady on Marvel’s/Disney’s part. Especially since Evans was hardly an unknown – not even to comic book movies, having previously played Human Torch in two Fantastic Four films. His take was less than half of what Robert Downey Jr. got for his debut MCU outing.
1. Sean Astin – The Lord of the Rings trilogy
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is one of the most epic cinematic undertakings in Hollywood history, featuring a cast of literally hundreds of actors over a grueling 438 days (not counting annual re-shoots over three subsequent years) and with a budget of nearly $400 million. Any actor signing on to the project had to know what they were in for, and the intense time commitment caused a lot of people to reluctantly turn down the exciting project.
You’d think that the principal players were at least well-compensated for having to spend over a year filming an extremely demanding movie in another country (few were New Zealand natives), on a schedule that rarely allowed them to return home. Veteran actor Sean Astin only earned $250,000 for all three movies– that breaks down to only about $83,ooo per film!
What other actors were seemingly underpaid for their work? Let us know in the comments!
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