Taraji P. Henson has been a main player in Hollywood for decades, but she’s long been grinding as if she were a newbie. Despite becoming a TV staple after scoring the role of Cookie Lyon on Fox’s “Empire” as well as starring as the lead in 2018’s “Proud Mary” and “Acrimony” and this year’s “What Men Want,” there’s one thing that Henson still battles: the racial pay gap.
It’s a subject that the TV actress knows about intimately. Despite appearing on “Empire” since it premiered on Fox in 2015, last year’s Forbes list of the highest paid TV actresses included Kerry Washington as the only Black star for the fifth year in a row.
Further illustrating issues with Black actresses and pay is this. When the former “Scandal” star landed on Forbes’ list in 2013, she was earning $3 million from the ABC drama. This despite the program reportedly generating $100 million in ad revenue. Comparatively, a fellow ABC star, “Grey’s Anatomy” actress Ellen Pompeo, has consistently earned more. She became one of TV’s highest-paid women in 2018 by landing a $20 million a year deal. “Modern Family” star Sofia Vergara is the highest female TV earner with $42.5 million.
Henson got real about how those stats have affected her despite her ever-rising star in Hollywood.
“When I booked ‘Empire,’ I had a momentum going that I’d been waiting my entire career for,” she said in a sit-down with Pompeo for Variety magazine. “I seized every opportunity. If I was getting 5 or 10 million a movie, I wouldn’t work so much. I’m working because I have bills to pay. I have dreams. I have to get it in.”
Pompeo said she would have thought Henson could have started commanding more pay after winning critical acclaim in 2005’s “Hustle & Flow.” However, Henson said that did not prove to be true.
“It did not. I think the industry knew I was talented. But it’s about money. Are you bankable? I had to continuously prove that. I’ve been trying to prove and improve. I was asking for half a million. I didn’t get paid that until I did my first Tyler Perry film [2008’s “The Family That Preys”]. He was the first person who paid me $500,000. I was never in a position where I could not take a job; by the grace of God, they have all been really good characters. But it was never a situation where I was like, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ Now, I’m finally there.”