Despite Starring in Huge Blockbusters, Zoe Saldaña Doesn’t Earn as Much as White Actresses

Zoe Saldaña attends the UK Premiere of 'Guardians of the Galaxy' on July 24, 2014 in London, England. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Equal work for equal pay remains elusive in Hollywood. When accused of wage discrimination, studio executives like to say that actors are paid according to their bankability, or how much money their films make. When news broke that Mark Wahlberg made $1.5 million for re-shoots while his co-star Michelle Williams made less than $1,000, the suits attributed the discrepancy to Wahlberg’s “bigger box office-draw.”

Zoe Saldaña is proof that Hollywood does not compensate actors based on their bankability. Saldaña, who is Dominican and Puerto Rican, starred in Avatar and Avengers: Infinity War — two of top five highest-grossing films of all time. She also boasts a list of additional blockbusters including Guardians of the Galaxy (vol. 1 and 2) and three Star Trek movies. Saldaña’s films have grossed $3.3 billion at the box office, making her the second highest-grossing female actor behind Scarlett Johansson and the 21st highest-grossing actor overall.

And yet, Saldaña has never made the annual Forbes list of the year’s 10 highest-paid actresses. This week, Scarlett Johansson topped the 2018 Forbes top-paid actress list by receiving $40.5 million in wages. Neither Zoe Saldaña nor any other woman of color made it into the top ten. Besides earning more at the box office than nearly all of the top-paid actresses, Saldaña is also more bankable than Mark Wahlberg—the top paid actor of 2017. The obvious mismatch between Saldaña’s box office earnings and her wages demonstrates a clear racial and gender wage gap. No Latino men appeared on IMDb’s all-time top grossing list or Forbes’ top-paid actor lists in the past 10 years, demonstrating how all Latinx actors face barriers to success.

‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ image courtesy of Paramount Pictures
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The exception to the rule is Cameron Diaz who is part Cuban-American. Her blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin have translated to her playing mainly white roles in Hollywood. Even though her movies grossed less money cumulatively than Zoe Saldaña’s films at the box office, Diaz made Forbes’ top-ten-paid actress list five times in the last 10 years. Another case is Sofia Vergara, who has occupied the top spot on Forbes’ list of top-paid TV actresses for the past six years. However, only a quarter of Vergara’s income is from her television show wages. Most of her earnings come from licensing and endorsement deals with brands such as Head & Shoulders, Pepsi and CoverGirl. Without them, she would likely drop off the list.

In Hollywood, race and gender pay gaps run rampant because actors are often hired as independent contractors and not as employees, and as a result they are not protected under anti-discrimination (or sexual harassment) federal laws. For Latinas, the pay discrepancy extends beyond Hollywood. In the United States, Latinas fare the worst of all groups—making a meager 54 cents to every white man’s dollar.

Besides wage discrepancies, Latinx are severely underrepresented (3.1 percent of speaking roles) in films compared to their actual U.S. population (17.8 percent) despite comprising 24 percent of frequent moviegoers. Latinas, in particular, are missing from most Hollywood productions: out of the top 100 movies of 2017, 64 had no Latina characters.

Zoe Saldaña 'Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2
Zoe Saldaña in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.’ Courtesy of Marvel Studios
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In recent years, actors—white women and people of color—have begun to demand fair wages. After finding out that women of color get the lowest pay, Jessica Chastain tied her salary to Octavia Spencer’s as “favored nations” in negotiations for a film project and got them five times what they asked for. In television, Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim walked out of negotiations when CBS refused to pay them the same as their white co-stars on Hawaii Five-0. Ultimately, the entertainment industry needs to take responsibility for correcting its own discriminatory practices rather than sidestepping equal employment laws through shady hiring practices.

While the future looks bright for Zoe Saldaña as she films four more Avatar sequels and another Star Trek sequel, her wage gap illustrates how Latinas continue to face racial and gender discrimination regardless of star power.