The Larger Lessons of Mark Wahlberg's Inflated Salary

The pay-inequity issue on the actor’s film All the Money in the World revealed how ill-equipped Hollywood’s business side is for the current moment.

A scene from 'All the Money in the World'
TriStar Pictures

When All the Money in the World was fast-tracked into reshoots to replace scenes featuring Kevin Spacey (who has been accused of sexual assault), Michelle Williams saw it as a powerful sign that Hollywood was changing. At the director Ridley Scott’s insistence, the studio was spending upwards of $10 million to recast Spacey with Christopher Plummer in the role of the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. As the film’s lead actress, Williams immediately signed off on the decision. “They could have my salary, they could have my holiday, whatever they wanted,” she said at the time. “Because I appreciated so much that they were making this massive effort.” To Williams, the reshoots were a statement, but to her co-star Mark Wahlberg, they were an opportunity.

In the film, Wahlberg plays Getty’s close adviser Fletcher Chase, the man tasked with rescuing his kidnapped grandson, Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer). Williams plays Paul’s mother, Gail Harris. Both actors have a significant number of scenes with the J. Paul Getty character and were vital to the reshoots, but only Wahlberg received an additional fee—$1.5 million—to participate, after reportedly refusing to approve the casting of Plummer until he himself was paid. Wahlberg’s primary agent, Doug Lucterhand of William Morris Endeavor (WME), led the charge, and because filming had to happen rapidly ahead of a Christmas release date, the financiers had to pony up.

Once the massive discrepancy in the two actors’ salaries came to light last week (Williams received only an $80 per diem), public outcry forced Wahlberg’s hand, and he donated $1.5 million to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, founded to fight pay inequity and the harassment of women across different industries. WME contributed another $500,000. “Over the last few days my reshoot fee for All the Money in the World has become an important topic of conversation,” Wahlberg said in a statement. “I 100 percent support the fight for fair pay and I’m donating … in Michelle Williams’s name.”

The controversy, and resulting donations, marked a messy end to the already complex industry saga of All the Money in the World, one that encompassed so many of the issues that have been churned up by the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo campaign. The Spacey allegations created a crisis for the movie that the studio rushed to address; the way the film’s other two stars responded to that crisis was telling.

But the pay disparity also demonstrated just how unprepared Hollywood is, as a business, to confront the economic dimensions of gender inequity. Wahlberg’s agents, who were already incentivized to make as much money for their clients as possible (agents receive a percentage of the payments they negotiate), were able to use the time-crunch of the reshoots to their advantage—and they only addressed the discrepancy after a storm of bad publicity. Williams could have perhaps made the same opportunistic move; in going a more principled route and not making financial demands, she made it easier for the studio to meet Wahlberg’s (there’s also the knotty matter of Williams being represented by the same agency, WME).

It’s easy to criticize Hollywood’s current moment of reckoning for coming off as superficial. You can wear black to a couple award ceremonies and say the right lines in interviews, but does it really mean you’re working to effect systemic change behind the scenes? The All the Money in the World situation served as a reminder of how, for actors, preserving their public image is often more important than the money they stand to make. Wahlberg was happy to negotiate for the $1.5 million in reshoot fees, but it wasn’t worth the bad press it eventually kicked up. (For perspective, Wahlberg is one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors, making some $68 million between June 2016 and June 2017, according to Forbes.)

Williams’s statement on the matter underlined just how unusual Wahlberg’s donation was, given the history of pay inequity in Hollywood. “Today isn’t about me. My fellow actresses stood by me and stood up for me, my activist friends taught me to use my voice, and the most powerful men in charge, they listened and they acted,” she said. “If we truly envision an equal world, it takes equal effort and sacrifice. Today is one of the most indelible days of my life because of Mark Wahlberg, WME, and a community of women and men who share in this accomplishment. Anthony Rapp, for all the shoulders you stood on, now we stand on yours,” she continued, referencing the actor who first spoke out on Spacey’s history of alleged assault.

Williams is right—the solidarity and activism of women in Hollywood, particularly those involved with Time’s Up, have helped create an atmosphere in which Wahlberg’s inflated salary was patently unacceptable. Enforcing those standards publicly will be part of the bargain until the industry starts to take more lasting action. It’s not just about stars like Wahlberg and the agents who work for him—studios and production companies will have to do more to ensure that both men and women are compensated fairly, since they’re the institutions with the fullest picture of who’s being paid what.

The paychecks involved in making All the Money in the World might come off as ludicrous—most women outside of Hollywood worried about inequity in the workplace aren’t competing with movie stars raking in millions of dollars. But cases like these can still offer compelling examples for other companies, and within Hollywood a “Mark Wahlberg situation” is something that any business-minded studio should seek to avoid in the future. The how and why of Wahlberg’s $1.5 million donation might have been tawdry and convoluted, but the end result was genuinely meaningful.