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Introducing the Paycheck Hall of Fame

Honoring the actors and actresses who have turned making objectively bad movies for objectively large wages into an art form

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With last week’s release of The Commuter and this week’s Heat-but-with-Gerard-Butler thriller Den of Thieves, we are fully in Paycheck Movie season. A Paycheck Movie is when a respected actor or actress takes a role for the dough. Sure, there could be ulterior motives—they wanted to test themselves with a physical role (we see you, Kate Winslet in The Mountain Between Us) or make something their kids can enjoy (the no. 1 reason for animated voice-over work or slumming it in a young-adult dystopia). But more often than not, they do these movies because the money is good and the work is undemanding. Don’t believe us? Ask Anthony Hopkins.

“I showed up, put my costume on, said my lines, and stayed out of trouble. That’s all I ever do. It beats working for a living.” This is what the Oscar-winning, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire said about his role in Transformers: The Last Knight (he also said that he didn’t quite understand the narrative of the Transformers saga, which is probably the one thing you have in common with Anthony Hopkins). (He also said Michael Bay was a genius.) This is the Tao of the Paycheck Movie.

There is no sight more brilliant and jarring than seeing an actor you hold in high regard, whom you’ve seen give acceptance speeches for major acting awards, perform opposite Bruce Willis in a movie about old spies. It just reinforces the idea that we’re all people with bills to pay. You’ve got a car note to cover and a rent check to write. They’ve got sprawling families, multiple castles, and late-life ennui. When you see someone you hold in high regard rolling around in the dirt in some January or February genre flick, just know: They don’t act now; they make money moves. And nobody does it better than the following thespians.

Liam Neeson

Chris Ryan: If there’s a Paycheck Mount Rushmore—and I’m not saying there is, but we’ve got a lot of mountains that are just sitting there—Liam Neeson is George Washington. He crossed the Delaware to get the guap. In the mid-’90s, Neeson’s brooding visage was a common sight in prestige period dramas like Michael Collins, Schindler’s List, and Ethan Frome. Sure, 1999’s The Haunting was a box-office play that paid off ($177 million worldwide! In 1999!), but it wasn’t until 2008 that Neeson’s special set of skills really hit the jackpot. That’s the year the first Taken came out. Since then, he’s made two Titans movies, worked multiple times with Seth MacFarlane, literally fought a wolf (like, not in the Sicario way), quoted Homer to Tim Riggins in Battleship, and made two more Takens and three Jaume Collet-Serra movies.

Why has Liam Neeson abandoned Edith Wharton for a life of murdering Albanian sex traffickers? Man, these horse-drawn carriages aren’t going to pay for themselves. Seriously, hot-hand theory suggests that Neeson doesn’t want to mess with a good thing.

Nicolas Cage

Andrew Gruttadaro: There once was a time when Nicolas Cage wasn’t the Nicolas Cage who stars in Christian propaganda movies, appears in odd photos with the first lady of Kazakhstan, and is the subject of headlines like “Nicolas Cage Fighting Japanese Corn Snack With His Name and Picture.” Up until the early 2000s, he was an eccentric but respected actor who made movies with the Coen brothers and David Lynch and Spike Jonze, who won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and picked up another nomination for Adaptation.

But then he bought two actual castles, one literal island, and a 9-foot tomb to be buried in when he dies (among about a thousand other things). That set him back a bit—like, it cost over a hundred million dollars. So because islands and pygmy heads don’t pay for themselves, Cage became the premiere Paycheck dude. Since 2007 he’s starred in 37 films, including a Ghost Rider sequel, a film called Bangkok Dangerous, and Left Behind, a movie with the same plot as The Leftovers that costars Chad Michael Murray and Jordin Sparks. He has a beautiful IMDb page.

“A while ago I made the decision that I was going to go more in terms of the golden-age actors in the old studio system, where they were making 150 movies by the time their career was up,” Cage told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. To date, it is still the best way anyone has ever said “I have 27 mortgages.”

Kate Winslet

Ryan: The Reader? Kate Winslet is trying to read these checks. Never forget, this is the star of one of the most popular movies ever made. And while she may have allowed Leonardo DiCaprio to slip into the icy depths of the Atlantic, Winslet is never letting go of her paper. Sure, we mostly know her from a seemingly unending list of awards bait: Sense and Sensibility, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the aforementioned The Reader. But in the past couple of years, Winslet has been following a path well-worn by some of her countrymen: lending some British gravitas to some real dog-baby movies. Now, you can explain making two Divergent movies as an “I wanted to make something my kid can watch” move. But your kid can’t watch Triple 9.

Maybe Winslet thought she was making The Godfather, but as someone who saw (and enjoyed) Triple 9, I can confidently say that wasn’t the case. She also made Collateral Beauty, which is its own kind of Paycheck Movie, even though it doesn’t feature the Russian mafia.

The thing to keep in mind is that Kate Winslet is married to a guy named Ned Rocknroll. I bring this up not to disparage her decision-making, but just to mention that Ned is the nephew of Richard Branson. So now we got all that Virgin money floating around. She is making Paycheck Movies for the purest of reasons: because she wants to. The last exit off of Revolutionary Road was a couple of miles back. Next up for Winslet? A month’s work on Avatar 2. Her bank account will go on.

Helen Mirren

Gruttadaro: Our girl Helen is a bona fide legend. She’s been active since the late ’60s; she played Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, and afterward all historians agreed that the royal line now runs through Helen Mirren (I think); she’s been nominated for four Academy Awards, 15 Golden Globes, and 11 Emmys; she’s one spoken-word album away from freaking EGOTing. Overall, she’s just one of the best people on earth.

Which is why I can’t even be mad that she’s been in both REDs (the “spies, but old” movies starring Bruce Willis), that she lobbied to be in The Fate of the Furious, or that she’ll be in the upcoming The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, which looks like if the live-action Alice in Wonderland and The Golden Compass had a threesome with a Christmas tree. I would never presume to know more about life than Helen Mirren, so I can only conclude that all of these choices were excellent. I’m certain Mirren thinks so, as she’s sipping tea in the courtyard of her baller New Orleans bungalow.

I leave you with this one fun reminder: Helen Mirren and Liam Neeson dated in the ’80s. I choose to think of this as the origin story of their elite paycheckery. “A black-and-white film with Steven Spielberg sounds fabulous, Liam,” I imagine Helen Mirren saying. “But I think $200 million sounds quite good, too.”

The Rest of the Class of 2018

Scoot McNairy

Ryan: Scoot is one of my favorite working actors. Here are just a handful of the gems from his résumé: Argo, Killing Them Softly, The Rover, Gone Girl, 12 Years a Slave. His 2017 was a fascinating tale of two careers. On one hand, there was the quiet and dutiful character work in Godless and Halt and Catch Fire; and on the other hand, my boy was a sober coke lord in the Jamie Foxx bad-cops thriller Sleepless. And before that he was in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and before that he was in the Schwarzenegger revenge movie Aftermath, and Non-Stop before that. He’s been toiling in the minors for a while, but we have high hopes for Scoot going forward.

Anthony Hopkins

Ryan: 1. Anthony Hopkins owns an estate on Point Dume cliffs in Malibu.

2. All things being equal, he’d rather be painting.

These things don’t pay for themselves.

Julianne Moore

Ryan: TFW you’re not the Mockingjay, but you want to get paid like one. Moore is putting together a Meryl-like filmography of critically adored performances (The Hours, Far From Heaven, Still Alice). But she will mess around and be in a Kingsman sequel.

Jeff Bridges

Gruttadaro: Sometimes an actor you love wins an Oscar and it’s exciting because it means that more roles will come his way and he’ll have the freedom to pick only the best ones. I’d say that was the case for Jeff Bridges after Crazy Heart in 2009, when he followed up his Oscar win with TRON: Legacy, True Grit, R.I.P.D., and The Giver. Just beautiful stuff from a PHOF (Paycheck Hall of Famer).

Clint Eastwood

Gruttadaro: In the past 20 years, Clint Eastwood has starred in only one movie he did not direct—that movie is Trouble With the Curve, a film in which Eastwood fights a coffee table. In the year 2000 he also directed and starred in Space Cowboys—also known as AARP Armageddon—which I believe makes him the Paycheck Hall of Fame’s supreme auteur.

Alicia Vikander

Gruttadaro: 2014: small movie about how robots have souls; 2015: small movie about a Danish girl; 2016: small movie about baby stealing; 2017: small movie about a fever caused by tulips; 2018? CASHING CHECKS.

One to Watch: Domhnall Gleeson

Gruttadaro: Anytime a promising actor stars in a movie alongside only CGI characters, you know they’re on their way to a Paycheck Hall of Fame career. So allow me to introduce Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, The Revenant, Brooklyn) in Peter Rabbit.

Did you guys see that cartoon rabbit making it rain cabbage on other cartoon rabbits? Shouts to you, Domhnall; excited for 2020, when you follow up a Golden Globe nomination by making Peter Rabbit 2: More Rabbits.