Robin Wright Threatens to Topple House of Cards By Playing Hardball In Negotiations

In most negotiations, I’ve long believed that the parties should not only be looking out for their own interests, but the opposing party’s as well. If everyone gives a little, they get a little in return, creating a win-win scenario for all. Here’s what I wrote last year about it:

“Negotiation is often treated like a battle for every scrap, and when you don't get everything you want, you've lost. I don’t approach any negotiation this way. I want us both to win (yes even my opponent) and I make that clear early and often. How can we both benefit from this? It's as much about tone as it is about content, and coming to it from a generous perspective makes all the difference.”

While I recognize this as an axiom in my own law practice and view it as a larger truth in general, I also understand that you can’t approach every negotiation this way; sometimes what one side wants is more important. And in those situations, playing hardball can be the right tactic. Robin Wright certainly felt that was the case when she found out that she was being paid less than co-star Kevin Spacey on Netflix’s hit series House of Cards

When Wright discovered that she was the victim of Hollywood’s long-standing gender pay gap, she marched into the producers’ office and demanded equal pay with Spacey. If they refused, she’d go public with the news. Even if she’d lost, that kind of directness takes balls and she rightfully would’ve been hailed for taking such a badass stand. But she didn’t lose. The producers brought her pay in-line with that of her male co-star.

She took on the Hollywood gender pay gap and won. 

Now full disclosure, I don’t watch House of Cards which is plainly silly because from the little I’ve seen, it’s an incredible show that hits all the notes I look for in hour-long dramas (what do you want from me? I'm busy okay!). But audiences HAVE been watching and made Claire Underwood, Wright's character, a popular mainstay of the show. That popularity gave Wright the power she needed to prevail here. Here's what she said last week at a Rockefeller Foundation event

"I was looking at the statistics and Claire Underwood's character was more popular than [Frank's] for a period of time. So I capitalized on it. I was like, 'You better pay me or I'm going to go public’—and they did."

Normally I don’t recommend threatening the other party. It can backfire on you if you don't have the leverage. But in this case, Wright (who is also a producer and director on the show) had two things going for her that made the tactic pay off. First, she knew she had the upper hand. She was too popular to simply replace with another actor and the bad blood resulting in her leaving the show and publicly bashing her former employer could’ve seriously impacted the show’s cache with its viewer base, maybe even killing it.

Second, and maybe more importantly, she was willing to walk away from House of Cards if her demands weren’t met.  Now, she hasn’t admitted that publicly and it’s purely conjectural on my part, but c’mon! It’s the only other clear choice.

If the producers had called her bluff and she didn’t walk, it would’ve been a disaster for her. You can’t threaten to tank your employer and then expect everything to go back to normal afterwards. No sir. No F’ing way.  In the best case scenario, she stays at the show, the public outcry forces the producers to give her a raise, but now the well is poisoned. She committed the one inviolable rule in Hollywood for women: don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Maybe the show continues on for a few more years, but now she has a reputation as a difficult person. Just another ungrateful uppity hard-to-work-with Heigl-type. And as a woman who is admittedly trying to restart her life after a decade raising children and propping up her ex-husband’s acting career, that kind of bad blood around Hollywood would be enough to send her back into the wilderness.

In the worst case scenario, Wright would be utterly destroyed. The producers could put the screws to her in future pay negotiations, treat her like garbage on set, and ruin her character. 

Wright seems like a pretty savvy person. She almost certainly knew that if things went south, she’d have to walk just to keep some semblance of dignity and shape the story to her advantage. And I’m sure she also knew that nothing gives you leverage quite like being willing to walk away from a deal. It’s the single greatest advantage anyone can have in a negotiation because it communicates that the other side is more committed to the deal than you are. So maybe they’re willing to buckle on key issues. That's the key to playing hardball - you stand a better chance of getting your way if you don’t care if the deal goes through. Wright bet that the House of Cards producers had more to lose by losing her than shelling out an extra million dollars per season. 

And you know what? Even if she stood a reasonable chance of losing, a long-time activist like Wright probably understood that some fights have to be fought, even if you’re going to lose. As long as they’ve been making movies, they’ve been paying women less than their male counterparts, even when it’s been statistically shown that movies and TV featuring women are as financially successful as those featuring men

Last year, Jennifer Lawrence addressed the Hollywood gender pay gap in Lena Dunham’s newsletter Lenny, stating that:

“When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself…I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.”

Robin Wright clearly internalized that concept. She fought for herself and got what she wanted by using the most effective tool at her disposal - being willing to leave if she wasn’t given the same respect as her male counterparts. Now she has the respect of all of Hollywood. Not a bad deal at all. 

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA