Taraji P. Henson Gets Emotional Discussing Unfair Pay and Treatment in Hollywood, Says She May Quit Acting

The 'Color Purple' star lamented about 'getting paid a fraction of the cost' and turning to side projects to supplement her income.

Taraji P. Henson is an Oscar-nominated actress, Golden Globe winner and multi-NAACP Image Award winner, but the harsh reality of Hollywood's significant pay inequality has her ready to leave it all behind.

In a conversation with Gayle King for SiriusXM radio, promoting her upcoming film, The Color Purple, with fellow guests Danielle Brooks and Blitz Bazawule, things became somber when Henson opened up about her frustrations over the industry's lack of fair pay, implying that the longstanding issues are determining factors in whether she gives up acting for good.

"I'm just tired of working so hard, being gracious at what I do, [and] getting paid a fraction of the cost," she said. "I'm tired of hearing my sisters say the same thing over and over. You get tired. I hear people say 'you work a lot!' I have to. The math ain't mathing. And when you start working a lot, you have a team. Big bills come with what we do, we don't do this alone."

Henson pointed out that a successful Hollywood career requires a team of people who deserve to be paid. "Big bills come with what we do. We don't do this alone," she said. "The fact that we're up here, there's a whole entire team behind us. They have to get paid."

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"When you hear someone go, 'Such and such made $10 million,' that didn't make it to their account," Henson continued. "Off the top, Uncle Sam is getting 50%. Now have $5 million. Your team is getting 30% -- or whatever you work out -- off what you gross, not after what Uncle Sam took. Now do the math."

"I'm only human. Every time I do something and break another glass ceiling, when it's time to renegotiate I'm at the bottom again like I never did what I just did, and I'm tired," she lamented. "I'm tired. It wears on you. What does that mean? What is that telling me? If I can't fight for them coming up behind me, then what the f**k am I doing?"

Breaking into frustrated tears, Henson noted that despite her various successes, she still gets told there isn't money on the table during negotiations because Black actors and stories "don't translate overseas," among other excuses. She stated that she's turned to various other projects, including her TPH haircare line, to supplement her acting income and diversify her brand.

"I'm tired hearing of that my entire career," Henson said. "Twenty-plus years in the game, and I hear the same thing, and I see what you do for another production, but when it's time to go to bat for us, they don't have any money. They play in your face. And I'm just supposed to smile and grin and bear it. Enough is enough! That's why I have other [brands] because this industry, if you let it, it will steal your soul. But I refuse to let that happen."

Bazawule, who directed The Color Purple, backed up her claims, sharing that he had to fight for all of his leading actors to be cast in the film despite their various successes. He said, "It was like you were never here," when he brought up their names to the studio.

"The fact that each one of you had to audition for this role...roles that were second nature for you...roles that no one should even question," Bazawule said.

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Various stars spoke out in support of Henson's comments, including A Black Lady Sketch Show creator Robin Thede, who noted that Henson was "telling the absolute truth" in her post to X (formerly Twitter).

"70-80% of GROSS income is gone off top for taxes & commissions (agents, managers, lawyers)," Thede wrote in a series of posts on the social platform. "And for those who pay other employees as well? Babyyyy! The math ain't math-ing! And I know - you're like $10M minus $8M is still $2M...Yes that's true. However, $10M is VERY RARE! Most of your fave Black actresses make about $250k-$500k for STARRING in movies (so $50-$100k net) and might only get ONE project a year."

She added, "This woman is OSCAR NOMINATED - imagine the struggle for 99% of the rest. Maybe folks won't relate but that's also the issue - being misunderstood and people just assuming they're 'rich.' So next time yall see an actor working at Trader Joe's, maybe it will hit different."

Gabrielle Union added her voice to the masses, writing, "Not a damn lie told. Not. A. Damn. Lie. We go TO BAT for the next generation and hell even our own generation and above. We don't hesitate to be the change that we all need to see AND it takes a toll on your mind, health, soul, and career if we're keepn it 💯 ❤️ u"

Viola Davis praised Henson for her courage, sharing a clip of the interview to her Instagram page. "This!!!! THIS!!! 👆🏿👏🏿👏🏿👏🏿" she captioned the post, which drew the attention of several other famous faces.

"Brave of her to speak about this openly. Problems at the top are hard to comprehend when it isn't you," Star Wars' John Boyega commented.

Black Panther star Winston Duke also wrote, "Thank you for speaking this truth…. Thank you…thank you fighting for us; for bravely representing your entire career. Thank you as well @violadavis for sharing and advocating.. thank you @octaviaspencer for fighting and advocating and exemplifying … you are true heroes🙏🏿🙏🏿🙏🏿"

Viola Davis/Instagram

Davis herself has spoken out about the unequal opportunities and compensation for Black artists in Hollywood. Davis called out the racial pay gap in a conversation with Tina Brown as part of the Women in the World salon in February 2018.

"We won't talk about gender inequality of pay. Because a lot of the women who've stepped forward -- and I stand in solidarity with them, okay -- what they are getting paid, which is half of what a man is getting paid...well, we get probably a tenth of what a Caucasian woman gets. And I'm number one on the call sheet. And then I go in, and I have to hustle for my worth," she said.

The Juilliard-trained actress pointed out that she is widely acclaimed across numerous mediums with decades of experience on film, television, and the stage.

"I got the Oscar, I got the Emmy, I got the two Tonys, I've done Broadway, I've done off-Broadway, I've done TV, I've done film, I've done all of it," she added. "I have a career that's probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver. They all came out of Yale, they came out of Juilliard, they came out of NYU. They had the same path as me, and yet I am nowhere near them, not as far as money, not as far as job opportunities, nowhere close to it."

She continued: "But I have to get on that phone and people say, 'You're a Black Meryl Streep...There is no one like you.' Okay, then if there's no one like me, you think I'm that you pay me what I'm worth. You give me what I'm worth."

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In a post she shared to Instagram praising Henson, comedian Loni Love claimed that she believed The Real's cancellation was due to the co-hosts' demanding pay raises.

"I believe one of the reasons why The Real was cancelled after eight seasons was due to the fact that the cohosts would have asked for substantial pay raises.... ( that we all deserved)," Love shared in the comments of her post. "It was cheaper to cancel a show with four hosts and replace with one host... the ratings were holding, we won Emmy's and image awards, we had great guests and were doing great standout stories about the culture... Taraji, Viola, Octavia, Monique and others have been screaming about pay inequity's for years.. it's hard to be a star when you are paid like dirt..."

Loni Love/Instagram

She continued, "Please know that as an actor you have to pay out a lot to keep getting work.. for example this press run they did .. I sure the production cover at least one makeup or hair person, travel, meals but they usually don't cover wardrobe and you are not paid to do press.. so you are excepted to look like a million bucks while not being compensated. And look at how many days they have done press .. that's an outfit or two a day.. that's expensive.."

Loni Love/Instagram

This isn't the first time that Henson has spoken out on the subject. In her 2016 memoir, Around the Way Girl, she claimed she experienced a considerable pay discrepancy while working on the 2008 movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Compared to her co-stars, including Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Henson wrote that she was paid "the equivalent of sofa change." She said her paycheck was in the "lowest" six figures and claimed she had to pay her hotel bill for several months during production, an arrangement she called an "insult."

In 2019, she expanded on her claims while speaking with Variety, saying she was initially offered $100,000 for the role that later earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Henson claimed she was able to bump up the salary to $150,000, but that it was still far below the $500,000 she was expecting to make as the third-billed actor in a David Fincher-directed studio movie.

"I want to make this very clear - I'm not saying that Brad or Cate shouldn't have gotten what they got," Henson said at the time. "They put a**es in seats, so give them their money. They deserve it. I'm not saying they shouldn't get what they're getting. I was just asking for half a million - that's all. That's it. When I was doing Benjamin Button, I wasn't worth a million yet. My audience was still getting to know me. We thought we were asking for what was fair for me, at the time."

"I asked for half a million. That's it," Henson added. "And they gave me $100,000. Does that make sense? I'm number three on the call sheet. Does that make sense to you? All I was asking was $500,000 - that's all we were asking for."

Henson further revealed the breakdown of her paycheck from the film during an appearance on The Real in 2021. The star claimed that her six-figure check turned into a deposit of less than $50,000.

"OK, so let's break it down like this: You have 12 months in a year to make your money right. If you do a film for five months that takes you off the market for anything else or any other kind of coin until you're done with that show," she explained.

Lester Cohen/WireImage

"At the time my son's school tuition, because he was in high school at Buckley, was $30,000. I chose my son's education over fancy cars and all those things, and so literally for five months that's what I made, his tuition," she added. "Now what? I gotta hit the pavement again and I gotta scrounge up another check, so that is how that works."

Addressing fans and critics who may have perceived her as being ungrateful or even greedy when it came to her check, she said: "And never did I expect to get paid what my counterparts, they have worked to get their quote, they deserve exactly what they're getting. But, however, I deserve a little more too."

In a profile interview with Elle magazine published last month, the Empire alum revealed that she's actively looking forward to retirement, in a way. "Well, not retire all the way," Henson explained. "I will always work. I'm talking about the grind -- [the] feeling that I have to take an acting job."

"I really want to start enjoying the fruits of my labor more and be in a position where I can rent a yacht and call my family and be like, 'Meet me in Spain,'" Henson added.

Watch Henson's comments on SiriusXM below.


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