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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Taraji P. Henson and Ellen Pompeo get very real about the pay gap and toxic work environments

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Photo: L to R: Taraji P. Henson (Jamie McCarthy) and Ellen Pompeo (Emma McIntyre (Getty Images)

Recently veteran actresses Taraji P. Henson and Ellen Pompeo had a conversation for Variety’s Actors On Actors series, and neither woman pulled any punches when it came to the subject of negotiating fair pay. Henson opened up about her struggle to secure high-paying jobs, which resulted in her seizing “every opportunity.” When Pompeo mentioned that Henson should have been in a position to ask for more money after her work in the award-winning Hustle & Flow, Henson confirmed that the role didn’t create better opportunities for her:

“I think the industry knew I was talented. But it’s about money. Are you bankable? I had to continuously prove that. I’ve been trying to prove and improve. I was asking for half a million. I didn’t get paid that until I did my first Tyler Perry film. He was the first person who paid me $500,000. I was never in a position where I could not take a job; by the grace of God, they have all been really good characters. But it was never a situation where I was like, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ Now, I’m finally there.”


Henson also touched on the way race plays a role in negotiations: Films created and helmed by black filmmakers and actors do not receive the same major budgets as their white counterparts, making it difficult to ask for a worthy amount, even if you are the star of record-breaking shows like Empire.

“It’s impossible to have this conversation without talking about race,” Pompeo acknowledged. “It’s such a significant piece of pay parity.” The Grey’s Anatomy star had her own issues with significant gaps in pay when it came to her career-cementing role. In comparison to her former co-star Patrick Dempsey, Pompeo was making almost half of his haul. “He was being paid almost double what I was in the beginning. He had a television quote. I had never done TV.” But that reasoning probably shouldn’t have held much weight either, Pompeo explained. “‘He’s done 13 pilots.’ Well, none of them have gone. I didn’t even realize until we were renegotiating season three. No one was offering that up.”

Pompeo also opened up about the rocky environment that plagued the first decade of the series and what inspired her to stay:

“At 40 years old, where am I ever going to get this kind of money? I need to take care of my kids. But after Season 10, we had some big shifts in front of the camera, behind the camera. It became my goal to have an experience there that I could be happy and proud about, because we had so much turmoil for 10 years. My mission became, this can’t be fantastic to the public and a disaster behind the scenes. Shonda Rhimes and I decided to rewrite the ending of this story. That’s what’s kept me. Patrick Dempsey left the show in Season 11, and the studio and network believed the show could not go on without the male lead. So I had a mission to prove that it could.”

Look, it may be difficult for most of us to empathize with millionaires wanting more money, and that’s fair. But unless Hollywood plans on paying all actors far, far less, then women and non-men should have comparable compensation, especially if they’ve been killing it in the industry for years.

You can catch Variety’s full interview here.