Established actors often require a minimum salary to appear in a movie, and can command large paychecks for relatively small roles. Johnny Depp, for example, was paid an estimated $20 million for his portrayal of the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland,” despite having just 661 words of dialogue. For his portrayal of the Joker in 1989’s “Batman” — a role with just 585 words of dialogue — Jack Nicholson was given a salary of $6 million and a share of the film’s box office earnings that, when adjusted for inflation, are now worth approximately $100 million.
Some important film roles may require little dialogue. In the Terminator franchise, for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a T-800 humanoid robot who speaks with minimal, pragmatic efficiency. Schwarzenegger speaks just 861 words of dialogue in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” far less than his human counterparts in the film.
Many of the characters on this list are gruff, hard-boiled types who speak in minimalistic film noir-style dialogue. Examples include Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken in “Escape from L.A.,” Sean Connery as John Patrick Mason in “The Rock,” and Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne in “Batman.” In 2011’s “Drive,” Ryan Gosling’s character is nameless and communicates mostly non-verbally, speaking just 116 words.
Paying actors high salaries may have hurt the profitability of a number of films. For their roles in 2010’s “The Tourist,” for example, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie were paid $20 million and $19 million, respectively. While the cast salaries account for roughly 20% of film budgets on average, the two lead actors’ salaries in “The Tourist” comprised roughly 40% of the film’s total $100 million budget. While the film was able to eke out a profit because of strong international sales, “The Tourist” grossed just $68 million domestically.
To determine the actors getting paid the most per word, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed salary data and word counts for approximately 2,000 movies. Actors were ranked by the ratio of their total earnings to the number of words of dialogue written for their character or characters in a given screenplay. Salary data came from “George Lucas’s Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success” by Alex Ben Block and Lucy Autrey Wilson as well as a number of additional sources, and was adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data on word count came from “The Largest Ever Analysis of Film Dialogue by Gender,” a project by Hannah Anderson and Matt Daniels hosted on the website The Pudding, as well as analysis by 24/7 Wall St. Word counts reflect dialogue in a film’s screenplay and may not be representative of the actual word count in a film’s theatrical version. Only roles in which actors speak fewer than 2,000 words were considered. Actors for whom reliable salary and word count data could not located were not considered. As a result, actors who would have likely made the list — Matt Damon for the role of Jason Bourne in 2016’s “Jason Bourne,” Henry Cavill for the role of Superman in 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” and Scarlett Johansson for the role of the Female in 2013’s “Under the Skin” — were excluded.
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