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2019’s Highest Paid Actresses List Tells An Unfortunate Tale

Lia Beck

In Hollywood (and, well, everywhere), money talks. And one way to get a snapshot of which movies and TV shows have been successful as of late is to take a look at Forbes’ lists of the highest paid actors and actresses. Of course, critical acclaim isn’t necessarily going to line up with a star getting paid millions of dollars for a film, but, for instance, Avengers: Endgame was a really, really big deal and one of its stars tops the list of highest paid actresses for 2019

But while the Forbes list (which actually estimates money earned pre-taxes and fees lawyers, agents, and managers from June 2018 to June 2019) might give an idea as to what’s popular in a broad sense, it also makes something else very clear: It’s hard to break onto this list, especially as a non-white actress. The only woman of colour on this year's highest paid actress list is Sofía Vergara; all nine other women are white. And, because it’s also striking, all of them are varying shades of blonde.

The list shows a couple things as it accounts to all women: First, actresses are still making far less than their male counterparts. The income of the top ten earning actors adds up to $588.3 million; the actresses list adds up to $314.6 million. Second, you land on this list either by being in a huge property (i.e. a Marvel production or long-running TV series) or by producing in addition to acting. (Endorsements help, too.) Many of the women listed have their own production companies and have explained that they started producing in order to create better opportunities and roles for women.

But when it comes to women of colour, starring on a long-running TV series, landing a major franchise role, or bringing in big bucks producing isn’t happening at as high a rate as it is for white women. Before this year, Forbes separated the highest earning TV actresses from the highest earning film actresses. Vergara has topped the TV list for seven years in a row, and that list has included non-white women more often than the film list. In 2018, the TV list also included Kerry Washington. In 2016 and 2017, Vergara and Washington were joined by Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra. The past five years of the film list, on the other hand, only featured two non-white women: Fan Bingbing ( twice) and Deepika Padukone ( once). 

While there is more opportunity for non-white women to have starring roles on TV than there is in film, there’s much left to be desired in both areas. According to UCLA’s 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report, as of 2017 theatrical films featured women in the lead role 32.9% of the time and minorities (of any gender) made up 19.8% of lead roles. On television, 39.7% of broadcast scripted shows had women in the lead and 21.5% a minority in the lead. Cable scripted shows had women in the lead 43.1% of the time and a minority in the lead for 21.3% of series. 

Across the board, actresses are fighting for more opportunities and for better roles. But, as is the case in pretty much every aspect of society, not everyone is being included in that fight in the same way. At least not yet.

Click through to check out the top earning actresses of 2019, read about what they’ve been up to, and how they are changing the game for — hopefully — all women in their field.

10. Ellen Pompeo — $22 million

Coming in at number ten on the list is Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo with $22 million. This huge paycheck, of course, comes primarily from her role as Meredith Grey on the long-running ABC series, as Pompeo hasn’t had any other roles in the past year. She is also a producer for the series, as well as a co-executive producer for the spinoff Station 19.

In January 2018, Pompeo made clear exactly how she ended up with her salary in an as-told-to for The Hollywood Reporter. She spoke of how series creator Shonda Rhimes empowered her in her negotiation, and explained, “When your face and your voice have been part of something that's generated $3 billion for one of the biggest corporations in the world [Disney], you start to feel like, ‘OK, maybe I do deserve a piece of this." Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images.

9. Charlize Theron — $23 million 

Next up, we have Charlize Theron, who had a number of movies come out in 2018 and 2019: Tully, Gringo, Long Shot, The Addams Family, and Bombshell. The Oscar-winner is also a producer on several projects, including Bombshell, Long Shot, Mindhunter, and Hyperdrive, and has her own production company, Denver and Delilah Productions. According to Forbes, Theron made $9 million of her $23 million from starring in and producing Long Shot alone.  Photo: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images.

8. Margot Robbie — $23.5 million

Theron’s Bombshell co-star Margot Robbie is one spot ahead of her on the list (and not the last Bombshell star you’ll see here, either).

In addition to the upcoming drama, Robbie recently starred in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Mary Queen of Scots, among other smaller projects. She also produced the series Dollface and the film Dreamland this year, and is a producer for Birds of Prey (out February 7), in which she stars as Harley Quinn. Forbes reports that Birds of Prey brought Robbie $10 million upfrontPhoto: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic.

7. Elisabeth Moss — $24 million

The Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss takes the seventh place spot. At this point, it won’t surprise you to hear that Moss is an executive producer on the hit Hulu series. Moss also recently starred in The Kitchen, Her Smell (which she also produced), and Us.

“For me, to have a voice in this industry after doing this for 28 years, to be able to have a say in anything — it’s like crack,” Moss told IndieWire in 2017 of producing. "It’s so addictive, it’s so fulfilling, I don’t know that I’ll be able to do it in any other way now.” Photo: James Devaney/GC Images.

6. Kaley Cuoco — $25 million

For 12 seasons, Kaley Cuoco played Penny on The Big Bang Theory, which ended this past May. And she really raked in the dough. In 2014, it was reported that Cuoco, along with Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki, would be getting $1 million per episode for seasons 8 through 10. Then, in 2017, the three stars reportedly took $100,000 pay cuts in an effort for parity for stars Melissa Rauch and Mayim Bialik, who joined the series in season 3 and 4, respectively.

While Cuoco was not a producer on the series, she profited in other ways, like through her commercials for Priceline. (And producing is in her future on the upcoming series The Flight Attendant and the animated series Harley Quinn.)  Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage.

5. Jennifer Aniston — $28 million

Jennifer Aniston brought in the big bucks from Aveeno and Friends residuals. (Seriously, though, it's not clear how those fit in, but she's reportedly making a lot from those reruns.)

Just kidding. There's way more than that. Aniston has starred in and executive produce d The Morning Show, Dumplin’, and Murder Mystery in the past year. The Morning Show, which was produced by her company Echo Films, was particularly lucrative with Aniston and co-star Reese Witherspoon reportedly making $2 million per episode, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “When we started doing this around 14 years ago, it was sort of looked upon as, ‘Oh, isn’t that so cute?'” Aniston told Variety of starting Echo with Kristin Hahn. “And it took us a while to be taken seriously.” Photo: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic.

4. Nicole Kidman — $34 million

Marking a big jump from the ladies listed before her, we have Nicole Kidman with $34 million. Kidman has endorsements, produces, and acted in a bunch of projects between 2018 and 2019. There was Aquaman, The Goldfinch, and Big Little Lies. In addition to making around $1 million per episode for season 2 of Big Little Lies, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Kidman also served as a producer on the series with her company Blossom Films. On top of all of this, she’s about to star in Bombshell with two of her fellow top ten members.  Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images.

3. Reese Witherspoon — $35 million 

Speaking of Big Little Lies, Witherspoon was a producer along with Kidman and also made around $1 million for each episode of the second season. Witherspoon’s has a media company, Hello Sunshine, with a production company, Pacific Standard, under its umbrella. The company also produced The Morning Show and Lucy in the Sky in 2019, among other projects. (Previously, it produced Wild and Gone Girl.)

“Why am I going to go to studios who don't make movies for women who, literally, if I bring them a script, would say, 'We already have one movie in production with a woman at the centre. We don't want to have two this year,'" Witherspoon said at Adobe Summit earlier this year, according to THR. "And I was like, 'I don't want their money.' So I self-funded for five years, and it created the autonomy I needed to be disruptive.” Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images.

2. Sofía Vergara — $44.1 million

If this list can teach you anything, it’s that starring on a TV show for years on end means you make a lot of money. Vergara is now on the eleventh and final season of Modern Family and for the eighth year in a row, she’s the highest paid TV actress out there. According to Deadline, Vergara was making $500,000 per episode as of Season 9. And, unlike many cable or streaming shows, Modern Family has long seasons of 20-plus episodes. Vergara also stars in movies, including this year’s Bottom of the Ninth, and has endorsements and businesses, like Head & Shoulders and her line of jeans sold at Walmart.  Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic.

1. Scarlett Johansson — $56 million

Sitting way at the top of the list, with over $10 million more than Vergara, there’s Scarlett Johansson, who, simply, has that Marvel money. As Forbes puts it, “She was the only woman in Endgame who could command eight figures upfront — about $14 million — and about 5% of backend (with a gross of $2.8 billion, that adds up to about $35 million).”

That alone would have her ranking number one, but she also starred in Jojo Rabbit and Marriage Story this year, which, depending on when and how she was paid for them also add to her total. This is Johansson’s second year in a row at number one, and expect to see her on the list next year, too: She’s starring in and executive producing Black Widow. Photo: Gregg DeGuire/FilmMagic.

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