“When you know better, you do better,” or so the saying goes. Sometimes—most times—it takes someone with privilege to enact change for everyone else. In January, actress Jessica Chastain made headlines when she advocated for equal pay for fellow actress and friend Octavia Spencer, addressing the persistently deep pay disparity for women of color. As Spencer told an audience at the Sundance Film Festival, “I told [Jessica] 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.”
Now Chastain is doubling down, demanding not only equal pay for her fellow actresses on the upcoming female-driven action film 355 (which she also produced and which garnered the highest bid at the recent Cannes Film Festival) but also equity in the film.
She is also taking Hollywood to task for its treatment of women—women of color in particular—telling the Hollywood Reporter:
In an industry that for the longest time had pitted women against each other, it’s really important for me and my company to create a space where everyone understands that actually we do better together. ... Your silence is your discrimination. So if you are succeeding in an environment where there is discrimination, you are actively being discriminatory. I knew women of color got paid less than Caucasian actresses. What I didn’t know is someone of Octavia’s level, who had an Oscar and two Oscar nominations, how much less she would be getting paid. When she told me what she was making, that’s what really made me go, “Hold up, that doesn’t compute in my brain.”
Chastain’s first solution has been to regularly broker what she calls “favored nations” deals, where actors with equivalently sized parts negotiate their salaries in tandem to make equal money.
Chastain also had strong words about Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement and referred to the late Kalief Browder, who was held at the Rikers Island jail in New York City for three years without standing trial, as opposed to Weinstein, who left jail after three hours when arrested on sexual assault charges:
He was arrested at 7:30 and then he was out at 10:30. Why do rich people not have to spend any time in jail? There was a kid that was accused of stealing a backpack and he was in jail forever. And then when he finally got released, he killed himself.
It’s often our tendency to scoff at white allies, but it’s impossible to ignore how much more profound the impact is when people with the kind of privilege Chastain has step us to make a difference for others. “The socially conscious part [of me] is just everywhere—in my personal life and in my work life. ... It’s just who I am,” she told the Hollywood Reporter.
And her professional impact is genuinely improving the lives and careers she’s advocated for:
This is the God’s honest truth—I care more about what Octavia’s getting paid than what I’m getting paid. Because I’ve got a great life. I am more concerned about her than I am about me. Equal pay for equal work!