Actors who were paid a pittance for their breakthrough roles

Ben Arnold
·Contributor
·6-min read

Those movies that turned their stars into household names didn't always pay household name-sized salaries.

In many cases, pretty far from it.

Ryan Gosling – Half Nelson (£756-a-week)

Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson (Axiom Films)
Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson (Axiom Films)

Ryan Gosling's big break, as we all know, was as a mouseketeer on the Disney Channel's Mickey Mouse Club. His breakthrough role, however, came a few years later in 2006, playing crack addict teacher Dan Dunne in the indie drama Half Nelson from director Ryan Fleck (who with Anna Boden would later make Captain Marvel). Gosling accepted a pay cheque of $1000-a-week. On the upside, he was nominated for Best Actor at the 2006 Oscars. So, y'know, worth it.

Hilary Swank – Boys Don't Cry (£2270)

1999 (L To R) Peter Sarsgaard, Hilary Swank And Brendan Sexton Iii Star In "Boys Don'T Cry."  (Photo By Getty Images)
1999 (L To R) Peter Sarsgaard, Hilary Swank And Brendan Sexton Iii Star In "Boys Don'T Cry." (Photo By Getty Images)

Hilary Swank's breakthrough role was in Kimberly Peirce's harrowing drama Boys Don't Cry, playing Brandon Teena, the trans man from Nebraska who was murdered in 1993, a murder which ushered in fierce lobbying for increased severity for the punishment of hate crimes in the US. Despite a tiny $3000 fee for her work, Swank won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Actress.

Jennifer Lawrence – Winter's Bone (£2270-a-week)

The UK poster for Winter's Bond (Artificial Eye)
The UK poster for Winter's Bond (Artificial Eye)

Before Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence played another inspirational hero – Ree Dolly, the teenager supporting her entire family in the rural Ozarks. Lawrence's raw performance stunned critics, and the role – for which she was paid just $3000-per-week for her time on set – earned her a nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars. Just two years later, for the first Hunger Games movie, she was able to demand $1 million, rising to a staggering $15 million come the third movie.

Brad Pitt – Thelma & Louise (£4500)

Geena Davis and Brad Pitt share a sex scene in the film 'Thelma And Louise', 1991. (Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images)
Geena Davis and Brad Pitt share a sex scene in the film 'Thelma And Louise', 1991. (Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images)

Hard to believe, but Brad Pitt was once unknown. Ridley Scott's female buddy road movie Thelma & Louise changed that, with Pitt playing the thief on the run JD, who cops off with Geena Davis's Thelma before absconding with her life savings like a git. He was paid the princely sum of $6000 for his trouble. He's probably got that much stuffed in his man-bag these days. The following year, he starred in Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It, and that was that.

Jamie Lee Curtis – Halloween (£6000)

American actress Jamie Lee Curtis on the set of Halloween, written and directed by John Carpenter. (Photo by Compass International Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
American actress Jamie Lee Curtis on the set of Halloween, written and directed by John Carpenter. (Photo by Compass International Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Jamie Lee Curtis created an archetype as imperilled babysitter Laurie Strode in John Carpenter's 1978 benchmark horror Halloween, her on-screen debut. So obviously, as a novice, her fee wasn't likely to be a record-breaker. Carpenter paid her just $8000 for her performance, compared to $20,000 for screen veteran Donald Pleasance. She even had to buy her own clothes from US department store JC Penney, such was the thrifty $300,000 budget for the movie. Still, it was better than Nick Castle, who played Michael Myers. He earned $25-a-day.

Dustin Hoffman – The Graduate (£12,800)

Kino. Die Reifepruefung, Graduate, The, Die Reifepruefung, Graduate, The, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft College-Absolvent Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) lernt auf der Party, die seine Eltern fuer ihn arrangiert haben, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) kennen und wird von ihr verfuehrt., 1967. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)
Dustin Hoffman, and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate 1967. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

Mike Nichols' The Graduate was only Dustin Hoffman's second movie, following a small role in Love Story director Arthur Hiller's The Tiger Makes Out in 1967. So a fee of $17,000 (these days a relatively respectable $130,000) was actually fairly decent. Playing the impressionable Benjamin Braddock in the simmering tale of the young man seduced by an older woman (Mrs Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft), Hoffman received his first nomination for Best Actor at the Oscars. He'd be nominated a further two times (for Midnight Cowboy and Lenny) before winning in 1979 for Kramer vs. Kramer.

Oprah Winfrey – The Color Purple (£26,500)

Oprah Winfrey on the set of "The Color Purple". (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Oprah Winfrey on the set of "The Color Purple". (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Back when she had two names, Oprah made her movie debut in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's pivotal The Color Purple, playing Sofia, the tragic sister of Whoopi Goldberg's Celie. The role earned her an Oscar-nomination, but not a great deal of money – her fee amounting to $35,000. With Quincy Jones, Winfrey later produced a musical version of the show for Broadway, which went on to gross over $100 million.

Jamie Dornan – 50 Shades of Grey (£76,000)

Jamie Dornan contemplates the mischief he's going to get upto next (Image by Universal)
Jamie Dornan contemplates the mischief he's going to get upto next (Image by Universal)

Considering sold a baffling 125 million copies around the world and has been translated into 52 languages, Universal Pictures wasn't splashing around the cash for its big screen adaptation of E.L. James's erotic fiction. But then Irish actor Dornan wasn't the first choice for the role, with Charlie Hunnam famously having the leave the project over scheduling conflicts, with the likes of Alexander Skarsgard, Theo James and Scott Eastwood also mooted. After the first movie was a hit, however (making $570 million worldwide), he got a hefty bump up to £4.5 million for the next two movies.

John Travolta – Pulp Fiction (£114,000)

LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 1994:  Actor John Travolta and director Quentin Tarantino in a publicity still for the Miramax movie 'Pulp Fiction' in September 1994 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
John Travolta and director Quentin Tarantino in a publicity still for the Miramax movie 'Pulp Fiction'. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

OK, so John Travolta's breakthrough performance was in Saturday Night Fever, but fast-forward to 1993, and his career was in the toilet, reduced to sell-through guff and Look Who's Talking sequels. Tarantino threw him a lifeline with Pulp Fiction, but only paid him $150,000 for his role as hitman with a heart (and briefcase) of gold Vincent Vega. For context, his next project, Get Shorty, paid him $6 million and by the close of the millennium, he was commanding $20 million per movie. He owes Quentin big.

Chris Evans – Captain America (£227,000)

Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and Chris Evans as Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) (Credit: Marvel)
Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and Chris Evans as Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) (Credit: Marvel)

'A pittance' is a relative term. But in the billion-dollar world of Marvel, $300,000 is a drop in the ocean. Particularly if that's what you're paying your lead actor. Chris Evans was largely unproved as a blockbuster lead, so introducing Evans as Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger was a bit of a risk. He was paid accordingly. Fun fact; after the ghastly experience of playing Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies, he'd turned down the role of Cap three times before finally agreeing, signing a six-picture deal with Marvel. He reportedly got paid $15 million by the time he got to Endgame, the same sum he got for Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.