MASTERPIECE fans know and love Charlotte Riley for her role as resourceful reporter Holly Evans on Press. But what they may not know is that, outside of acting, Riley is fighting for gender equality in the film industry.

It all started when she arrived on the set of King Charles III in 2017, ready to play Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, in a film examining what Britain might look like when Prince Charles takes the throne.

It was her first role after having a baby with her husband, fellow actor Tom Hardy, and she was up for the challenge. One thing she didn’t have to worry about was childcare: because of her position as a lead actor, production welcomed her baby boy to set.

“They were super accommodating,” she said over a Zoom call from her car (the only place to find quiet away from her children.) “It was wonderful. I was able to be there, I was able to work, I felt very welcome and so did he.”

However, as she got to know the crew on King Charles III, Riley noticed that the accommodations that allowed her to be a working mother didn’t extend to “below the line” staff: the gaffers, electricians, prop masters, makeup artists, and all of the other less glamorous jobs that keep the wheels of a movie spinning.

Two women in conversation in the middle of a newsroom
Priyanga Burford and Charlotte Riley on 'Press'
Courtesy of Robert Viglasky/BBC/Lookout Point

“I hated the disparity,” Riley said. “It just felt deeply unfair.” She noticed that, among crew members with children, they almost always had a partner who had sacrificed their own career in the industry to take on the primary role of caregiver. It’s a loss not just for those families, but for the industry, which relies on highly skilled staff who train for years to master their craft. A study from Raising Filmsfound that 79 percent of film workers in the U.K. felt that having children negatively impacted their careers.

At the time of Riley’s observation, discussions about gender equality were bubbling up and erupting in the film industry on both sides of the Atlantic. The #MeToo movement ousted high-profile Hollywood executives. That same year, the Academy Awards nominated Greta Gerwig for Best Director, only the fifth time a woman has ever received the honor, prompting heated discussions about how women are treated both in front of and behind the camera.

Riley hatched an idea. She connected with a business partner, Mark Radcliffe, and they decided they would create a mobile childcare facility that could travel to film sets, and someday, permanent nurseries at major film studios. It took two long years, but Riley and Radcliffe’s vision came true. This fall, their organization The WonderWorks opened the U.K.’s first ever on-site childcare facility, at the Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden, where blockbuster films like the Harry Potter series have been filmed.

The facility at Leavesden has about 50 spots for children of crew members, and will be open long hours to accommodate unusual schedules. Each production that films at the studio can reserve spaces for crew before hiring takes place, and parents can also claim their government-free childcare hours. Riley says that if major productions commit to providing childcare from the very beginning, and not as an afterthought, it will completely change what kind of crew members can be hired — i.e., more women.

The opening and expansion of the nursery is paused now due to new pandemic restrictions, but, when open, the nursery is a magical place, and feels far away from the harsh maze of lighting, cameras, and equipment that is a film set. Outside, where children are encouraged to spend half their time, a boy climbs into a large rubber tire, rolling it forward over fallen leaves. Another boy gathers up small tree branches and bundles them to create a paint brush. Inside, a young girl sits down at an old mirror, crusted in gold, and stares back at her reflection.

The nursery has been designed “with children in mind,” Riley said. “I wanted the interior to feel like your grandma's house. And then we wanted the outside to feel like your grandpa's shed.” That means there are no “professional” toys. Rather, the nursery is filled with found items from old movie sets, anything that was recycled and discarded by Warner Brothers. Old pots and pans become a play kitchen, trash cans become musical instruments, light fixtures become puzzles, and tree branches become a playground.

There’s a reason this has never been done before. Riley admits that without the leverage of being a leading actor, she may have never been able to persuade the studio to take this on. “We were knocking on doors for two years talking to people and we were up against mostly older men, in particular,” Riley said. “They would just sort of say, ‘Why would the industry pay for something that they've never had to pay for before?’”

Is this the future of childcare for Hollywood and beyond? Riley thinks so. She would like to see all major studios in the U.K. and America commit to funding and subsidizing similar programs. She views childcare as a crucial piece to the puzzle of achieving equality for all industries, not just in film.

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare many of the challenges women still face in achieving equality at work. ASeptember report from the Labor Department found that in the fall, women left the American workforce at a rate four times higher than men did. Even in the United Kingdom, which has government subsidized childcare, women still struggle in fields like the film industry that have long hours and unpredictable schedules.

Achieving full gender equality may take baby steps — but the babies who are taking their first steps on a film set in the U.K. may grow up in a different world than their parents.

Back at work after having her baby, Riley was encouraged when she noticed that there were numerous female sparks in the electrics department, who were in charge of lighting and power on set. She walked over to them and struck up a conversation. One woman, in her mid-20s, told Riley that she was already worrying about how she could have kids. “Should I start thinking of another job?” she wondered.

Riley hopes that someday, women like those sparks won’t have to decide between a career they are passionate about and starting a family.

Watch Presson GBH Passport.