Actresses of color are getting more roles and acclaim, but not commensurate money. Recognizing that achieving change isn’t a solo act, they looked for help — and found it in each other.
Giving colleagues a peek at their paychecks, speaking out about economic disparity and using hard-won success to boost others are among the measures slowly gaining traction in an industry where most actors are hunting for their next freelance job and women of color face entrenched barriers.
“One of the first things we say is, ‘Find out what the people around you are making,'” said entertainment lawyer Nina Shaw, a founding member of Times Up, the organization created in 2018 to fight sexual misconduct and workplace inequality. “And more and more, we’re finding that people are willing to talk to each other.”
Without knowledge of what other actors with a similar track record are getting for equivalent work, “you are way behind the eight ball,” said Gabrielle Union (“Think Like a Man,” ”Being Mary Jane”).
Changing entrenched behavior takes time, Union said, but “little by little we’re communicating, and women of color, specifically black women, are like, ‘Oh, hell nah.’ We are so woefully underpaid, under-appreciated, disrespected.”
Ana de la Reguera (“Power,” upcoming film “Army of the Dead”) saw the value of networking as part of “Latinas Who Lunch,” an informal group started by Eva Longoria. Actresses, as well as writers and directors, gathered to share their experiences and job and career-building tips.
“We were actually encouraging each other to, say, shadow (observe) a director, ask to direct an episode, ask to be the executive producer,” de la Reguera said. The #MeToo movement consumed their attention last year, but she continues advising women one-on-one as they learn to navigate Hollywood’s intricate system, which she said is more challenging than the still-growing industry in her native Mexico.
What performers earn is difficult to verify, say researchers who track film and TV employment. Privacy concerns are one obvious reason, as are the complex deals that include compensation for acting and other work (as with HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” which Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman starred in and produced).
But there is research that adds weight to complaints of disparity. In the latest San Diego State University analysis of TV’s broadcast, cable and streaming programs, women had 40 percent of the speaking roles while men had 60 percent in 2017-18 despite the genders being evenly split in the population. Further limiting opportunities for women of color: 67 percent of all female roles went to white actresses, the study found. That exceeds the almost 61% they represent among U.S. women.
Asked if industry racism is at play, Union, who won a contract dispute with media giant Viacom-owned BET over her series “Being Mary Jane,” had a ready reply.
“Based on the numbers that I know that black women, Latinas, Asian women, indigenous actors are making, there is no other logical reason why we are paid what we are paid versus what our contemporaries are paid who are lacking melanin,” she said.
Less work means fewer chances for an actress to build a resume and the fan base that leads to more and better roles. Yet box-office receipts and TV ratings show that audiences embrace projects with multiethnic casts, according to an annual Hollywood diversity report from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Union wanted an established actress playing opposite her in “L.A.’s Finest,” which spins off Union’s character from “Bad Boys II,” and settled on Jessica Alba (“Sin City,” ”Dark Angel”). As executive producer of the Spectrum TV series, Union was positioned to make that happen — and ensure that Alba was fairly compensated.
“Because of the way my deal is set up, I had no problem giving back money to make sure Jessica Alba gets paid what Jessica Alba is worth,” Union said. “But you have to have the studio, the network, everyone to sign off on that.”
Asserting one’s economic value can be complicated when the sensitive subject of ethnicity is involved, even for celebrated actress Viola Davis, an Oscar and Emmy winner. In a 2018 interview, Davis said that while people have termed her “a black Meryl Streep” she isn’t paid what she’s worth.
Davis later felt compelled to offer a public apology, telling The Associated Press she doesn’t compare herself to Streep, others do, and that she was taking responsibility for making the most of her potential with her own productions.
While African American actresses fight for pay that matches the stardom and critical acclaim they’ve achieved after decades of struggle, the scant number of leading roles for actresses of Asian and Latino descent is a different burden.
Even with the box-office hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” the sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” and Sandra Oh’s success in “Killing Eve,” actors with Asian roots struggle to get lead roles and commensurate pay, said Nancy Wang Yuen, a Biola University professor and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.”
“There isn’t a kind of a consistent platform advocating for Asians in Hollywood, and that’s part of the problem,” she said.
Jennifer Lopez made a huge leap for Latinas with 1997’s “Selena,” becoming the first Hispanic actress to earn $1 million. The importance of that payday has grown in retrospect, said Lopez, who recalled that she felt undeserving and even ashamed of her success at the time.
“But now I realize that it was important because our community needed that boost to say, ‘Yes, we are just as much value as any other actor (in) a leading role in Hollywood, in a big film,” Lopez said.
“Everybody knows there is racism, there is sexism …. it all exists. It’s just about us getting to the point of you realizing what you’re worth and who you are,” she said.
Awkwafina, the young breakout star of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell,” finds herself in a similar position but forced to navigate among established actresses fed up with the status quo and past ready to make waves.
“Maybe I should inform myself how getting paid works but, at this point, I’m a newcomer. … And I don’t know what I should be getting,” she said. “But I think if I continue to deliver products that are doing well and that are well-received, I should be compensated fairly, right?”