We are all aware of Hollywood nepotism.
Maya Hawke, the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, and Maude Apatow, the daughter of Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann, are two stars that have come into the spotlight with their respective roles in Stranger Things and Euphoria. These two actors, along with a large handful of others, make up a strange role that seems to only exist for those who were born into the industry.
They get to simply be actors. They do not have to be spokespeople for countless brands or constantly take roles that they do not want. They hold a rare position, and in contrast, Sydney Sweeney's career has made this apparent.
Sweeney, an actress who grew up in Spokane and lived in a motel with her whole family while trying to make an acting career work, has a very different lifestyle from many of Hollywood's well-known and reserved elite. The actor seems to be everywhere all of the time. From television series to films to ads on Instagram or billboards throughout Los Angeles, Sweeney has had her nose to the grindstone throughout her career.
After working steadily in Hollywood for 10 years, Sweeney isn’t less famous than her legacy peers, yet the Emmy-nominated actress can't afford to take a break like the rest of her costars. Why has the Hollywood industry become impossible for lower-income or middle-class income families to navigate?
'Euphoria' Star Sydney Sweeney says she isn’t able to take a long break and has to continuously work.Credit: Getty Images
Sweeney’s Statement on Hollywood
Euphoria actor Sweeney revealed in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter how frustrating it has been for her to watch her legacy peers navigate an industry that she has fought to be a part of, and how she still feels financially insecure.
“If I wanted to take a six-month break, I don’t have the income to cover that,” Sweeny said. “I don’t have someone supporting me, I don’t have anyone I can turn to, to pay my bills or call for help.”
Sweeney revealed that 20% of her income goes toward paying various people who help her do her job. To pay her bills and pursue her dream of being a mother is almost impossible.
Her statement quickly received backlash from people who were pointing out that Sweeney is also rich. Many people can’t take a six-month break, but those people also don’t live in a house worth $3 million.
The issue boils down to a misinterpretation of what Sweeney is saying.
While Sweeney did not fully acknowledge her wealth, Sweeney is pointing out the faults of a system that rewards families with wealth and makes it harder for actors and artists of lower- or middle-class families to live a comfortable life without constantly working.
The Unaffordability of Hollywood
As Defector points out, Sweeney is basically a freelancer. Many freelancers know everything we have to pay for comes out of our pockets.
“If I just acted, I wouldn’t be able to afford my life in L.A. I take deals because I have to,” Sweeney told Hollywood Reporter. Sweeney has no choice but to work and do ads while her peers with family connections or family wealth focus solely on their work, maintaining the same lifestyle without any worries.
The truth is, few jobs in the arts generally pay enough for people without generational wealth to survive. We are starving artists, working to make sure we can maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
Sydney Sweeney and Maude Apatow as the Howard Sisters in 'Euphoria'Credit: Warner Bros. Television Distribution
This Affects Everyone… Well, Almost Everyone
The wealth divide is becoming more and more noticeable in L.A. There is a soul-crushing feeling that is already pushing down the incoming workforce, making it seem impossible for them to generate any substantial income if they don't have family money to lean back on.
Actors are not being paid as they used to be in the age of streaming. For example, the cast of Friends can live comfortably with the $20 million residuals they get each year for the show’s reruns while actors nowadays in streaming series cannot survive on residuals they receive for their shows.
Defector reports, "[P]assive income, which is the real American dream, is no longer something that the actual artists—not just actors but writers and directors and everyone else who ever made a dime off of residuals—involved in the entertainment business get to enjoy."
It’s a complicated situation that SAG-AFTRA is trying to resolve, but the future seems bleak for everyone involved in the arts.
To put things in perspective, writers are paid less now than they were 50 years ago for the same work. Ernest Hemingway was paid $1 a word in 1936, which would be roughly $21 per word in today's money. The novelist was a special case as he negotiated his pay, receiving double the average income of other writers, but he was able to live an incredibly comfortable life as a writer.
The Freelancer, which defines itself as a “guide to the gig economy” maintains a database of rates received by freelancers. Today, the median pre-word rate stands somewhere between 76 cents and a dollar. The rates have hardly changed in almost a century, which is a massive red flag for artists.
Writers, along with many other freelance positions in the industry, should be able to pay their rent, and health insurance premiums, and tuck some money away in savings. Instead, many of us are working multiple jobs just to keep up with bills and the rising cost of living in California.
Those doors that were once open for artists from any income level to thrive and make a living creating art they were passionate about are now shut by those who want to keep the wealth in the hands of a few.
The Gatekeeping of It All
Some people in our fields are making very good money. But these people are not making the art. Their salaries are reported by the Hollywood Reporter.
For example, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav made $246.6 million in total pay for merging Warner Bros. and Discovery. Disney Chair Bob Iger took home $45.9 million last year. We could go on and on.
Personally, I think that is a wild amount of money to give to people who cancel projects on a whim or have the power to remove work from platforms because they feel like it.
Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David ZaslavCredit: Getty Images
This isn’t new. The Federal Reserve reported that the total wealth of 1% of the U.S. population has reached a record of $45.9 trillion at the end of the fourth quarter of 2021, which is 32.3% of the nation's wealth. If you want more perspective, the Council on Foreign Relations reported that the top 10% of Americans hold up nearly 70% of U.S. wealth.
While Sweeney is in the top 15% of the richest people in the U.S., there are still more people above her keeping the wealth to themselves. Sweeney’s story is one about labor, management, and wealth gap struggles that many people from low- and middle-class income families know too well.
The structure built around the valuable creative products does not value the artist and the artwork. Instead, the system becomes bloated, leaving only room for those born into the system or those who can maintain a consistent work pace long enough until they finally "make it." But making it isn't really a viable option anymore, and Sweeney is living proof.
People who make the most money off art don’t make the art—and that's the problem.
The cast of 'Euphoria'Credit: Getty Images for HBO
I am not saying that being a "nepotism baby" automatically means that they get handed the jobs and roles that they want. But their family’s wealth does make it easier for them to get their foot in the door and gives them the choice to not take on jobs or roles that they don’t want to take.
What I am saying is that the Hollywood system is greedy and benefits from gatekeeping the wealth of the industry. Artists not born into the system are often not properly compensated for their work. Many of us are frustrated by the lack of progress we are seeing with our labor and are tired of sacrificing what we want to do for the sake of financial security.
Everyone deserves to live comfortably and pursue their dream job without heavily relying on their next paycheck. It’s absurd, really, that this is a problem that many of us, including well-known actors like Sweeney, have to face. We're not sure what the solution is, but something has to change.
Let us know your thoughts down in the comments!