Golden Globe-winning actress Jessica Chastain is well-known as one of the most vocal women in Hollywood when it comes to demanding equity, insisting that she be paid on par with her male co-stars. As she told Newsweek in 2017:
What I do now, when I’m taking on a film, I always ask about the fairness of the pay. I ask what they’re offering me in comparison to the guy. I don’t care about how much I get paid; I’m in an industry where we’re overcompensated for the work we do. But I don’t want to be on a set where I’m doing the same work as someone else and they’re getting five times what I’m getting.
So when Chastain approached Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer about doing a holiday comedy with her (the two first appeared together in 2011’s The Help), the discussion naturally turned to the gender wage gap. But what Chastain wasn’t prepared for was the wage gap she’d yet to consider: how much less actresses of color make than their white counterparts.
Good friend Spencer quickly brought her up to speed—a conversation she recounted last week while on the Women Breaking Barriers panel at the Sundance Film Festival (Spencer’s revelation begins at the 19:30 mark):
We were dropping f-bombs and getting it all out there. And 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 gonna have that conversation about pay equity, we gotta bring the women of color to the table.” And I told her my story, and we talked numbers, and she was quiet, and she said she had no idea that that’s what it was like for women of color.
Chastain did more than listen; she committed to bringing her new knowledge to the negotiating table, brokering what she called a “favored nations” deal. As Spencer recalls:
She said: “Octavia, we’re gonna get you paid on this film. You and I are gonna be tied together. We’re gonna be favored nations, and we’re gonna make the same thing.”
Chastain’s negotiations sparked a bidding war for the film, which will be produced by Chastain and released by Universal Pictures, and resulted in salaries five times higher than what was initially offered, making Spencer’s salary as an actor equal.
We really need to look at ourselves and say we need to reevaluate this. We need to reevaluate women who ask for a pay raise or ask for a promotion. It’s actually an okay thing. It’s okay to be ambitious, it’s okay to be over-prepared.
It may be the type of story that for some will evoke tropes of the “white savior,” or the much overused (and often misunderstood) term “white allies.” But for Spencer, it’s simply an example of how true allies can effectively use their privilege for positive change: “I love that woman, because she’s walking the walk and she’s actually talking the talk.”