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Mo’Nique on Pay Gap for Black Women, Why Oscar Talk Is ‘Irrelevant’

Mo’Nique argues his is whhat the #OscarsSoWhite controversy isn’t just about the lack of nominations for black actors. It also highlights the pay disparity for women of color in Hollywood.

In an interview with Variety for this week’s cover story, the Oscar-winning star of “Precious” reveals that she  received only $50,000 and an insignificant back-end for the 2009 Lee Daniels drama, which went on to gross $47.5 million at the domestic box office. She says she signed the contract because she trusted the director, who was a friend. (Daniels declined to comment.)

Mo’Nique hasn’t spoken to Daniels in years, at least not since he considered her for the Cookie role in the Fox series “Empire” that eventually went to Taraji P. Henson. Despite the lack of communication, she still considers him a friend. Since winning the Oscar for “Precious,” Mo’Nique says she’s had to turn down roles because the salaries attached to the offers were less than what she was earning a decade ago, well before she was an Academy Award-winning actress.

The stand-up comedian now hosts a podcast with her husband-manager Sidney Hicks, called “Mo’Nique and Sidney’s Open Relationship.” She spoke to Variety about what she remembered from Academy Awards night, how the spirit of Hattie McDaniel helped her choose a dress and what she’s been doing in the years since accepting her Oscar.

What do you recall about your Oscars journey?
When I think of the Oscars journey, I don’t put it all on the Oscars. It was just that journey, period. To give it all to the Oscars would be unfair. I think a big highlight for me was when they called me for the first time for the NAACP Image Awards. Because as a little girl, I didn’t see people like me receiving the Oscar.

Did you watch the Oscars growing up?
Rarely. That wasn’t a program that we watched in our household. There was no representation. When you do see people of color get nominated, you’re like, “They really put the work in.” You’re excited for them and happy for them. We put so much on the Oscars, at this point we’re being misdirected. The focus should not be on the trophy. The focus should be on the paychecks and the unequal wages. Anytime you hear Patricia Arquette and Gwyneth Paltrow, when you hear those white women say, “We’re not getting equal wages.” Well if they are saying it, what do you think we’re getting?

Is it harder for women of color?
To focus on a trophy, we totally miss the point. Let’s have a real and open conversation. That’s when change will happen in Hollywood. To ask me about a trophy is really irrelevant. It’s just a trophy. But why is there such a pay gap? If there’s a black film coming out and it’s an all-black cast, why is it that it’s a low-budget film? The offers I oftentimes receive are less than I got 11 years ago, and that’s before I won the Oscar.

Was there a time you were ever paid as much as male co-stars?
No. There’s never been a time that I’m aware of, that my paycheck was equal in the entertainment industry, in Hollywood. When you get a telephone call from directors like Malcolm Lee and he makes me an offer to do a movie that’s far less than I made a decade ago when I worked with him on “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins,” and my husband says, “How do you make that type of offer when she made more money then?” His reply was: “I know it’s not right. I just want to work.”

That seems outrageous.
Does it seem outrageous? Or is it outrageous? Here’s what’s interesting with my dynamic in Hollywood. I never came to Hollywood to be an actress. I came to Hollywood to be a talk show host, because that’s what I am. I am a talk show host, baby; every bone in my body, because I like to talk. Becoming an actress literally fell into a lap.

After you won your Oscar, were you turning down roles because the salaries were too low or the parts weren’t good enough?
What we have always had to tell people, I’m not in the business of script reading. When you call up the offer, we don’t get that far. We want to know, “What are you offering?”

But producers will want you to read the script first.
That’s how it’s normally done. That’s not our process. That’s not how we do it.

Do you think you’ve missed out on good roles because of that?
No. Anything I’m supposed to get, guess what’s going to happen …

You were only paid $50,000 for “Precious.” Did you get a back end?
There was a back end, in all fairness. But the end it was behind, it was the double triple quadruple back end. Because Lee Daniels was my friend, he said, “This is what it is.” And we said, “Okay.” That movie made a lot of money all over the world. And again you have to ask yourself, “Why is it that we don’t take part in it?” Myself and Gabourey Sidibe, we should have become multi-millionaires off that movie, had we been given the right information. We weren’t given the right information. If you’re not given the right information, it doesn’t allow you to negotiate fairly.

What’s the right information?
By them saying, “Let me lay everything out on the table. This is what this means, this is what this back end means.” I don’t think my friend will tell me anything that’s not right. But then you understand it’s business. It’s a lesson well learned, a costly one. You have to ask yourself if “Precious” is so successful, why is that I’m not getting offers that make sense because you see what happens at the box office? I don’t say it’s just because of me. It was a collective group. Everyone that took part was a big part of the success.

The budget of the movie was $10 million and it grossed $47.5 million domestically. Who made that money?
Someone did, my love. Can you please call them and ask them where it is?

Would you say your “Precious” contract was a bad one?
I want to play fairly and I want to say no, because I signed up for that. What I can’t do now is cry and say I was mistreated.

Do you talk to Lee Daniels?
I haven’t spoken to Lee Daniels in a while. But when I say someone is my friend, I don’t say that lightly. Whenever my friend is ready to have a conversation, I’m right here.

Did you stop speaking to him after he considered you for the role in “Empire”?
I never stopped speaking him. I don’t like the play on words. Do you have friends?

I do.
Sometimes people don’t have them; it’s Hollywood. You ever have a friend that they just get to show off? You still love them, but you have to let them get through it. And when they get finished showing off and they knock on the door and they open it up and they come with their arms extended and you hug them. That’s all that is. Whenever he’s ready to reconnect, I’m right here. I’m a connector.

Did winning the Oscar hurt your career?
When you know the history of Hattie [McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar for “Gone With the Wind” in 1940], she said she felt like she had been cursed. They already didn’t want to pay her fairly. Now that she had own the highest award in the acting business of Hollywood, now you think we’re going to treat you fairly? Unfortunately, that sweet woman died penniless. She didn’t get the money she was supposed to get. So did it hurt my career? I have to say no, it didn’t. What I did always have was the option to say yes or no. I think, unfortunately, there are times where we don’t have the option. I’m a stand-up comedian. I go on the road. I tour. So I always have the option to say, “No, thank you.” But what about the ones who don’t have the option? I don’t know how much has changed from Hattie to right now.

It’s sad to think that little has changed.
Because we just haven’t had the right conversations. I know my husband has said to me, “Mama, it’s not that people in Hollywood are bad people at all.” It’s just that they are conditioned to do it that way. We always want to speak about racism in Hollywood. I’ve done business with people of color who have not played fairly. Are they racist or is this just the business model? “I want to get as much as I can from you and give you as little as I can.”

So you don’t think Hollywood is racist?
I don’t take it all the way out of the equation.

The flowers in your hair on Oscars night were an homage to Hattie?
Yes. I wasn’t even supposed to wear that dress. The dress I was supposed to wear was orange. But Hattie said, “No sugar, I want you to wear the same color I wore that night and it’s supposed to be blue.” The damn zipper popped on the orange dress, and there was a beautiful blue gown right there.

Are you going to watch the Oscars this year?
No. Nor am I boycotting. What people have to understand is I have small babies. Michael is 12, and David and Jonathan are 10. If it’s not baseball practice or jujitsu then we’re playing the “Minions” memory game. I’m a mommy and a wife. It’s not that I’m boycotting anything. It just wasn’t in the plans to watch it.

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