Robert Downey Jr. was paid $75 million to play Iron Man in “Avengers: Infinity War.” That mammoth figure may motivate any aspiring actor, but when it comes to how much actors can expect to make, $75 million is the exception, not the rule. So, on average, how much do actors make?
An actor’s salary is different depending on the medium (film, television, or theater) and the type of role (lead, supporting, or background). It also depends on the experience level: An experienced performer can ask for a higher actor salary than someone who is fresh out of school. Read more to find out how much you can expect to earn as an actor.
According to U.S. News & World Report, in 2020, the median salary for an actor was $43,760. The top 25% earned more than $60,760, while the lowest 25% earned a maximum of $28,080—a modest amount that still qualifies them for union health insurance. Unless they’re employed regularly on a television show, actors tend to work on a project-by-project basis, which means they may not work at all for some years.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 30,100 actors made a mean pay of $31.31 per hour last year. The figure varied based on mediums: Screen actors had an hourly mean wage of $33.54, while stage actors had an hourly mean wage of $28.64.
How much an actor makes also differs by location. New York’s hourly mean wage for actors is $41.05 and California’s is $38.43—two of the highest state wages. Uncoincidentally, both states are booming in film and television production.
Actors are paid differently based on their chosen medium.
Generally speaking, for screen work, actors are paid a day rate. If they are needed for more than five days, they are paid a weekly rate. Rates vary if actors are needed for the entirety of the film shoot or the entirety of a television season. Television actors can also be paid per episode. Stage actors, however, are usually paid a weekly rate.
Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood” Courtesy Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures
How much actors make per movie depends on how many days you are needed on set and how much your agent can negotiate. A film shoot can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months.
The screen actors union SAG-AFTRA has minimum wage requirements, based on the budget of the film, that projects must pay union actors. Every major film and television studio in Hollywood operates under a SAG-AFTRA contract, so those minimums apply; agents negotiate more for their clients if necessary.
Actors start out at a day rate, and if they are needed for longer, the payment scheme is bumped up to a weekly rate, and then to a run-of-the-picture rate.
For example, on a film with a budget of at least $2 million, under the SAG-AFTRA theatrical contract, the minimum day rate is currently $1,056 per day. If your role requires at least five days of work, then the rate is $3,664 for the week. Background actors make $182 a day, and stand-ins make $214 a day.
As a lead or supporting player, your role likely extends the length of the entire shoot, and you’re making a minimum of $65,000 (the run-of-the-picture rate).
Generally, the smaller the role and the earlier you are in your career, the smaller the paycheck. For example, Brad Pitt made just $6,000 in the 1991 film “Thelma & Louise,” his first major role. Fast forward to 2019, Pitt was paid $10 million for “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood.” The lesson: There’s no shame in starting small.
An actor’s pay on a television show depends on how many episodes they are contracted for.
TV shows usually take one to two weeks to film one episode. The rate is $1,056 minimum for a day performer and $3,664 minimum for a weekly performer. If you have a major speaking role, then your rate is $5,808 for a half-hour program and $9,293 for a one-hour program. General background actors are paid $182 per day and stand-ins $214 per day. If you are a “term performer,” as in someone who is needed all season, your rate is a minimum of $3,146 per week for 10 to 19 weeks, and $2,618 a week for anything over 20 weeks.
Wages vary depending on what agents are able to negotiate and the actor’s influence on the show. For example, the cast of “The Big Bang Theory” were mostly unknown when they started out on the long-running CBS comedy. As their characters became more beloved, the cast became integral to the show’s success, and their salaries adjusted accordingly. Jim Parsons made a total of $60,000 for Season 1 of “The Big Bang Theory.” By Season 12, he was making $1 million per episode.
Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock
The salary for a theater actor varies depending on how long a show has been running, which can be anywhere from a few weeks to a month to years.
Like screen actors, theater actors have their own union, Actors’ Equity Association, which dictates the minimum salary its members must be paid. Every major professional theater in the U.S., including Broadway and Broadway tours, operate under an Equity contract. Theater actors are paid on a weekly basis.
On Broadway, under the production contract, the minimum weekly salary for an actor is $2,323 a week; pay increases are also available depending on the requirements of the role. A chorus member who also plays an individual role gets paid at least $20 above the weekly minimum, for example. If you are understudying a principal role, you get a small weekly pay bump of at least $56. If you are a dance captain, you get paid an additional $464.60 a week. Actors also get a bonus if they are with a show for more than a year, usually around $2,600. There’s also a small bump if the production recoups its costs and starts turning a profit (that amount varies).
While the minimums are set, actors can negotiate for a higher fee—especially if they’re a celebrity. In 2012, Al Pacino was paid a headline-generating $125,000 a week to star in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” And it’s not just household names. Broadway actor Nik Walker told “The Financial Diet” he was making around $240,000 a year—with a pay bump if the show sold well at the box office—while playing the lead role in the Broadway musical “Ain’t Too Proud.”
Broadway provides the highest-paid theater contracts in the U.S. There are lower-paying contracts, which depend on the size of the theater producing the show. For example, Off-Broadway actors working for a theater with an annual budget over $4.25 million can be paid anywhere from $689 to $1,526, based on the number of seats in their theater. So, an actor performing in a 400-seat theater will make more than an actor performing in a 99-seat theater.
These amounts also vary depending on how much an actor’s agent can negotiate.
Actors can be paid for more than just film, television, and theater. You can make money doing commercials, doing corporate and educational videos, appearing in music videos, and doing voiceover work. All of those jobs, if you are a union actor, have a minimum base pay.
For example, if you have a speaking role in a commercial, wages can range from $783.10 for one-time use, to $2,939.09 for a six-month option. If you’re doing voiceover for an upcoming TV show’s promo announcement, the minimum is $340 for one eight-hour recording session.
If you are an actor just starting out, you can expect to make the minimum salary as stipulated by SAG-AFTRA or Actors’ Equity. Once you land an agent, they can walk you through how much you can expect to make and where you might see a pay bump.
As you move up the entertainment ladder, and get more credits on your résumé, you (or your agent) will be able to negotiate a higher pay rate. And perhaps one day, you too can ask for $1 million an episode.