With more and more conversations about pay equity taking place in Hollywood, we’ve heard more than one story of talented women being paid less than their male counterparts. However, with the exception of Mo’Nique pointing out the disparity between her proposed paycheck from Netflix and what comedian Amy Schumer received (though she also referenced what Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle were paid), we haven’t heard many episodes about famous women of color seeking to be as paid as much as their white female co-stars. And the truth is, much of this conversation happening is seen through the white feminist lens. As women, we’re still not valued the same. It’s true that it’s time women get paid as much as men for doing the same amount of work if not more. But in many industries, particularly in Hollywood, it’s also time that Black women get paid as much or nearly as much as white women.
This was something Octavia Spencer, a three-time Academy Award nominee and winner, had to explain to her friend and The Help co-star Jessica Chastain. This conversation, which was an uncomfortable one to have, happened when the star asked Spencer to take part in a comedy she is currently producing. The information was an eye-opener for Chastain. But the good news is, it made her take action, and the end result was that both actresses would be paid the same for the project, five times what Spencer would have normally received.
She shared this tale while speaking as part of a “Women Breaking Barriers” panel at Sundance, where she has jury member duties this year:
I have a story, and you guys are going to be the first to hear it.
About 15 months ago, Jessica Chastain — we’re really good friends and we had such a great time working on The Help. She wants to do comedies and I want to break out of period pieces. I love ’em! They’ve been kind to me. But I kind of want to play someone who resembles me in some fashion. So she contacted me and she said, “I want us to do a comedy.” I said, “Yeah!” She had an idea and she went off to work and I went off to work. She called me about six months later, which would have been like last March. We were talking about pay equity with men and women. She was like, “It’s time that women get paid the same as men!” I’m like, “Yeah, Jessica! It’s time!” We were dropping F-bombs and getting it all out there. Then I said, “But here’s the thing. Women of color, on that spectrum, we make far less than white women. So if we’re going to have that conversation about pay equity, we’ve got to bring women of color to the table.” I told her my story and we talked numbers and she was quiet. She had no idea that that’s what it was like for women of color.
These are happy tears! I love that woman because she’s walking the walk and she’s actually talking the talk. She said, Octavia, we’re going to get you paid on this film. I said, “I would love to do your film, but here’s the thing, I’m going to have to get paid.” She said, “Of course! You and I are going to be tied together. We’re going to be favored nations and we’re going to make the same thing. And you’re going to make that amount.” Fast forward to last week: We’re making five times what we asked for. That’s why Jessica Chastain believes she is walking the walk. Now I want to go to what the men are making! I want to get there. But right now, it feels really good to be in that conversation. So I’m emotional because I haven’t had the time to process it, and it’s real. Every woman, every man in here, everyone has value. And women do have to produce, because she’s producing this. She came up with the story. She went out with her production company and we pitched together. We had a bidding war and we’re just sitting there sipping coffee like, “Oh my God! Women are in demand leading films!” Because on paper they’re already making money because they’re going to produce it for less than what it costs to produce male vehicles. So let’s start there, ladies.
It opened the door but the thing is, people say lots of things. But when it came down to it, she was right there shoulder to shoulder as a producer and as an actress. It’s changed my whole perspective on this matter.
The movie in question, according to Shadow and Act, is a holiday comedy. The bidding for the project was intense, with Universal obtaining the film over the likes of Paramount and Fox. It will be produced by Chastain’s Freckle Films production company, and as you heard, Spencer will be making a pretty penny for her work. It’s about time.
Check out her story in her own voice at the 19:30 mark below and hear why it’s more important that we’re out here producing projects instead of just trying to appear in them: