‘I bump into people on the street, they say, “You’re on Fair City, I don’t watch it myself”’
Maria Oxley Boardman puts a capital spin on summer’s acid brights and explains why she chose Carrigstown over couture
Maria Oxley Boardman is already waiting at a table when I arrive at the hotel. We text, because at first we cannot find each other. “I’m going to stand up. I might be a bit hidden,” she messages. She stands, I see her waving, and wonder how I possibly missed her. It’s not just the tall, striking, model thing; Maria has been playing Dearbhla Dillon on Fair City for four years now. Even if you don’t watch the show, her face is likely to be vaguely familiar. She gets stopped and recognised all the time, she tells me.
Is there snobbery about acting in a soap?
“I bump into people on the street, they say, ‘You’re on Fair City, I don’t watch it myself’,” she laughs, then quickly adds, “I don’t know if there’s snobbery to do with it. It’s not something that I ever experience, and it’s not something that I would ever like to entertain. Because it’s been such a huge part of my life, and such a huge learning curve for me.”
Fair City was her first professional acting job. After studying at drama school she went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to perform in a three-woman play. Upon returning to Dublin in October, she auditioned for the show. By December, she was on screen.
“Soap is a very specific beast,” she adds. “The pace of work is very quick. You’re getting the scripts not too long in advance, you’re meeting a different director every week. There’s just loads going on. There’s a very clear story every single week.
“It’s a funny one, because you don’t know where your story ends. In other scripts that you would be given, you would know the trajectory of the story, the beginning, middle and end.”
Growing up, acting was not in the plan. In fact, Maria studied pharmacy in Trinity, before going on to audition for legendary casting director Maureen Hughes at the Bow Street Academy for Screen Acting.
“I feel like a lot of things you end up doing are in you, waiting to be discovered. Even though you’re not aware of them at the time. I do think a body arrives on Earth with loads of potential. When I look back, I can now pinpoint the little times in my life where I would have gone, ‘Oh I would love to do that, but I dunno how’.” All acting-related, she adds.
Maria, who recently married her long-term partner, found the academic aspects of school easy.
Socially, she laughingly describes herself as reluctant to mature. “I think that I was a very young teenager. I was afraid of the dark until I went to college; I slept with my door open with the hall light on, or my dad would turn off my light after I had gone to sleep. I feel like I had to be kicked out of childhood,” she smiles.
“I think I would have much rather have sat in and watched The Late Late Show with my mam and dad than gone anywhere. When I did the things, like a disco, I loved them. I loved dressing up. But I was always kind of reluctant to move onto the next stage. It felt like I had a huge aversion to, ‘OK, this is who you are now’. I’d think, ‘Oh god, I don’t want to do that next thing now. I’m grand where I am’.”
Acting courses were nowhere to be seen when it came time to consider what next — “not at all, not… at… all,” she laughs.
My CAO form was like, pharmacy, law, dietetics, architecture, engineering. There wasn’t a through line of health care, even. It was like maybe that thing, and maybe that thing.”
She had done some dancing as a child, and “bits and pieces” of drama. There was a stage school in the area, but this did not feel inviting. “Sometimes I think stage school can be quite difficult for kids who aren’t naturally showy.” Which you weren’t? “Which I wasn’t,” she says, smiling.
“I’d be mortified over myself,” she says dryly. “And maybe felt like that’s the kind of person you had to be to do it.
“I remember doing one acting class when I was younger, and I don’t know why I didn’t continue it, maybe it was a time clash; there were four kids in my family. But I remember it was one of the first times that I kind of thought, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting thing’.”
It was the first time Maria thought this might be something she could be good at.
“I’m the eldest,” she says. She’s the eldest of four siblings, with two brothers and a sister. She grew up in Westmeath from the age of five, Longford before that. Her mum, Colette, a primary school teacher, is from Kinnegad, and her father, Nigel, worked in a bank. “And I feel that’s also a thing that people say about actors and creatives, they’re like, ‘Oh you’re the eldest’,” she says, adopting surprised tones. “Weird, that the eldest would be an actor.”
What kind of an older sister is she?
“Bossy. My brother next to me would call me bossy. I would have had a very strong moral compass when I was younger,” she says, laughing. “There was a real focus on the importance of the truth, and what was right and wrong.”
She studied pharmacy at Trinity College, and went to join the college drama society, Players, but found it too intimidating.
“I remember walking in with one of my friends and we just were like, ‘Oh god, we don’t belong here’. And backed out. In lots of ways, it was probably good because I would have 100pc failed my degree, because pharmacy is a real full-on, nine-to-six day.”
She loved college and moved to Dublin to live in halls. “It was kind of like a dream. You met so many people; there were so many people of your age group, in the same place. It was fizzy. So many 17- to 19-year-olds living in halls. ”
It was at this time that she was spotted and signed to a model agency, having appeared in a fashion show in Trinity.
“People had said it to me. Honestly, when you’re tall, I think people are just like, ‘You should be a model’. I was really into it as well. When I was growing up I loved fashion. I loved it.”
She laughs as she recalls outfits involving her dad’s large T-shirts, and a Red Bull basketball vest. “I just thought I was so cool. God love me.”
After college, she worked in in hospitals, and community services; during the pandemic, she worked in a pharmacy. Modelling jobs would happen at the weekends, then she began to juggle the two. She does not, she says, have a commercial face. Which means she tends to get cast more for editorial work, by which she means magazine shoots, which are typically the more creative end of the work. “The work would be really conceptual. And I think that is what fed into acting. I have to say that satisfied an itch I had.”
It was on a shoot in Connemara, with the designer and stylist Alison Conneely, that a photographer said to her, “You should be an actor”.
“I was like, ‘Hmmm?’” she says in a tone that suggests one’s ears pricking up hopefully, then she laughs. “Yeah, delighted. You know when you get a nudge from somebody, and especially when it’s something you know you enjoy, and you feel you could be good at.”
Just even saying you want to be an actor is a hard thing, she agrees. There isn’t the obvious career path, it involves something of a leap of faith.
“I am really new to acting is the other thing; Fair City was my first job, and that was four years ago.” Maria’s father Nigel was always supportive of his daughter’s ambitions to act. A creative person himself — “he could plait hair when our mum would not have been into that” — who, like his daughter, was into fashion. Maria describes him buying vintage clothes and dyeing them when he was younger; she also recalls him dressing up in 2016 as Pádraig Pearse for Easter Rising centenary commemorations in their village. He would help her with accents for an acting class. Nigel passed away in 2016. “I don’t know if I have anything to say about that that wouldn’t take up the whole interview,” she says.
A friend had audition for what was then The Factory (now Bow Street Academy). “I had no idea what I was doing.”
Maureen didn’t give her a place that time, but told her that she thought she had something.
“It was enough to make me think that it could work. Enough to make me think that I could do it. Coming from her, obviously that means a lot.” She “fluttered” around for the next two years, taking some acting courses. “It just kind of clicked something into gear.”
She returned for a second audition.
“And I got in. That was it.”
As well as Fair City, Maria has appeared in the indie film Holy Island, and last year filmed Five and a Half Love Stories in Lithuania. So far, juggling the show with other work has been manageable.
It’s clear she means it, loves every bit of it.
Photography: David Conachy; Styling Orla Dempsey, @thatsorlatoyou; Hair Emma Thompson, @saltedlocks
Make-up: All make-up by celebrity make-up artist Christine Lucignano using Chanel Spring-Summer 2023 Make-up Collection and No 1 de Chanel Rich Revitalizing Cream
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