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Who Are Hollywood’s Highest Paid Actors? And How Did They Get There?

Congratulations, Tom Cruise. Despite the inexplicably bad Rock of Ages, the 50 year old actor remains the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, out-earning his closest rival by two-to-one. But looking at the list as a whole, you may start to wonder: What are we paying these people for?

Here’s the top 10 (well, 11, but that’s because there are ties) highest-paid actors in the movie industry right now (as well as their estimated income between May 2011 and May 2012), according to Forbes Magazine:

Tom Cruise $75 million
Leonardo DiCaprio $37 million
Adam Sandler $37 million
Dwayne Johnson $36 million
Ben Stiller $33 million
Sacha Baron Cohen $30 million
Johnny Depp $30 million
Will Smith $30 million
Mark Wahlberg $27 million
Taylor Lautner $26.5 million
Robert Pattinson $26.5 million

Firstly: Well, apparently the Twilight movies pay really, really well… but it’s depressing to see Kristen Stewart apparently making less money than her male co-stars, considering she’s arguably the lead character of the series and all.

Secondly: I’m not the only person who looked at that top of that list and wondered whether people were being paid on how their movies had performed five years or so ago, right…? Cruise and DiCaprio, I can understand; one brings the audiences – as long as it’s an action flick – and the other brings a certain amount of prestige, especially considering the directors who love to work with him, but Adam Sandler? Ben Stiller? Really?

The arcane math that makes up actors’ salaries is a continually confusing system that I’ve long given up trying to work out, but the fact that Sasha Baron Cohen earned the same as Johnny Depp seems strange to me considering their respective statures – I know Borat was a massive hit, but he hardly had a track record beyond that, in terms of box office, and The Dictator didn’t really set the world alight in terms of success when it came out a couple of months ago – never mind the fact that the artist formerly known as The Rock out-earns both of them. And Will Smith! Shouldn’t Will Smith be further up that list…?

Ultimately, I guess, the one thing that the list makes extremely obvious – Outside of the misogyny of the movie industry because, come on, there’s not one woman in the top 10 highest-paid actors? Seriously? – is the importance of agents and good negotiation in the entertainment industry. That Hollywood isn’t a meritocracy is hardly breaking news, but this list ably demonstrates that it’s not even success that’s being rewarded, or else the Twilight stars would be far, far higher than they are. Clearly, the way to success in the movies isn’t by making good films, or even selling out and making movies that you know the audience wants to see; it’s by choosing one of those routes and then making sure that you surround yourself with really, really smart people who can take as much advantage of what you’ve achieved as possible.

Then again, maybe everyone should just follow Tom Cruise’s example and start running a lot in movies, just in case that’s some kind of secret lucky charm that can work for everyone. I mean, how else to explain his dramatic success?


  • Jeremy Carrier

    Graeme…you do know there was a highest paid actress list they did last month, yes? And Kristen Stewart makes close to $10 million MORE then her male co-stars.

    Forbes magazine 2012 list of highest paid actresses:1. Kristen Stewart, $US34.5 million2. Cameron Diaz. $US34 million3. Sandra Bullock, $US25 million4. Angelina Jolie, $US20 million5. Charlize Theron, $US18 million6. Julia Roberts, $US16 million7. Sarah Jessica Parker, $US15 million8. Meryl Streep, $US12 million9. Kristen Wiig, $US12 million10. Jennifer Aniston, $US11 million 

    Just a little research in the future, man. It’ll pay dividends in the future.

  • Juan Isidro Acevedo

    Well, both Jacob and Edward were the big big draws for the female market, which probably made around 75% of the audience or whatever.
    And how do we know she was the titular titular? We all make the relation of the name Twilight with sparkly vampires. Edward is the sparkly vampire.
    Almost all the jokes are at his expense and he’s definitely the face of the franchise.

    Plus it’s not as if  it’s the first time the lead gets paid less than another actor.

    Brando and Hackman got more than Reeves.
    Nicholson more than Keaton.
    Schwarzenegger more than Clooney.
    Even Terrence Howard got paid more than Robbie Downey on Iron-Man. Heck, I think RDJ got the smallest purse out of the main group. 

  • Ziggy Blumenthal

    In addition to Graeme not realizing this is a list of only actors, and that’s why there’s no women on it, he also fails to point out that these totals aren’t necessarily the result of them getting paid EXCLUSIVELY for acting. Adam Sandler produces all his movies, as well as movies he doesn’t even star in. Sasha Baron Cohen also produces his movies. It doesn’t matter that The Dictator didn’t light up the charts, everytime you saw Borat or Bruno playing on TV Cohen got paid. 

    But of course Graeme makes no mention of this and as usual writes an entire, ultimately meaningless, article based on an uninformed premise. 

  • Jeff Kraschinski

    As others have pointed out, there are no women on the list because they’re not using the term “actor” in a gender-neutral manner.

    And that’s an issue in and of itself, partly why “actresses” do still tend to be paid less.

  • Faust

    that is one sad ass list. All of these actors (except Depp) are getting waaaaaay over paid.

    Sandler and Johnson??? I don’t think I’ve seen a film from either of them in the last 5 years.