In early 2018, actresses and producers Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer made waves when the co-stars of a still-untitled holiday comedy banded together to demand equal pay. Spencer first announced the news at a Sundance panel mounted by the HFPA and dedicated to the theme of “Women Breaking Barriers,” and at the 2019 version of that same panel, she arrived with the kind of news she had hoped for just one year earlier: Men are getting in on the movement too.
“I think my goal is to make sure that all women of color get equal pay, and all women get equal pay,” Spencer said. “The only way to do it is to have these conversations, to talk numbers with your co-stars. Jessica and I stood together, and that was interesting that she would take that position — well, I mean, she is Jessica Chastain — but we also need advocates and allies in negotiating.”
One advocate: LeBron James, who is executive producing the Netflix series “Madam C.J. Walker,” which will see Spencer starring as the eponymous haircare mogul (and America’s first black self-made millionaire). “I have to say, when I was negotiating my deal for ‘Madam C.J.,’ LeBron James had to intervene,” Spencer said. “So we need all our male counterparts to be in the fight with us.”
One of those male counterparts, producer Cassian Elwes, was sitting onstage with her. The sole male on the panel — this year entitled “Women Breaking Barriers: Where Are We Now?” — joined Spencer and her fellow actresses and producers Kira Sedgwick and Jenna Elfman for the talk. Elwes, who has proven to be an outspoken ally for many female creators, thanks to his work with such projects as the inclusive hiring initiative ReFrame and the young female filmmaker–focused Horizon Award, had plenty to add about the subject.
“I think men are on a steep learning curve in Hollywood,” he said. “I was in the middle of a negotiation, actually in the last two days, where the lawyer for the male star was saying, ‘Oh, he should get paid more than she should,’ and I was like, ‘Absolutely not, they’re going to be most favored nations in this deal, they’re gonna get the same deal basically.’ He’s like, ‘Well, he’s working more days than her,’ and I said, ‘Well, we’re holding her for just as much time, too.’ And he said, ‘Well, what do you gotta say for that?’ And I said, ‘I’m just going to say two words: Time’s Up.'”
Later, Elwes reflected on the very recently announced “4% Challenge,” which asks creators and stars to working with a female director within 18 months. The initiative, announced by Dr. Stacy L. Smith from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative earlier this week, was designed to increase the number of female directors in the 1,200 top grossing films, which Smith’s research recently found has remained at 4% since 2007.
“I want to be in it, I want my other male colleagues to be in it too, I want other women who have the power to be in it too,” Elwes said. “Things are gonna change when people who have power actually use it.”
That idea of sharing and using power has caught Spencer, too, and when asked about her hopes for the next year, she brought everything full circle. The answer is advocating for each other and using all that power for good.
“I’m a pragmatist, and I think that what’s exciting is, for me right now, is I feel like there’s a paradigm shift and women are leading the charge in that,” Spencer said. “We just have to continue the momentum, and we have to remember that all of us, we need to work together, men and women. We need to advocate for each other. … I think we’ve made considerable strides in the conversation. Are we there yet? Uh, no. But are we where we were? Uh, no, and that’s what’s promising. I like the idea of that.”