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Bad girl Line of Duty’s Maria Connolly loves terrifying audiences with evil roles

The Belfast actor has earned a place in the villains hall of fame after making a terrifying return to the hit drama as bent prison officer Merchant

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Maria Connolly giving her famous glare in Belfast this week

Maria Connolly giving her famous glare in Belfast this week

Maria Connolly giving her famous glare in Belfast this week

Line of Duty’s Maria Connolly says it’s good to be bad.

The Belfast actor has earned a place in the villains hall of fame after making a terrifying return to the hit drama as bent prison officer Merchant.

A record-breaking 13 million viewers watched the scowling screw in the dramatic finale and Maria says it’s mindboggling that her character is part of TV history.

As Merchant broke a police officer’s wrist and took part in an attempted murder plot, viewers quickly pointed out her similarity to other screen baddies.

Maria was compared to Bond villain Rosa Klebb, the sour-faced assassin in From Russia with Love, mean guard Joan ‘the Freak’ Ferguson in Prisoner Cell Block H and even Tony Soprano’s right-hand man Silvio Dante.

For the hard-working actor the funniest part of the fans’ feedback was she filmed Line of Duty between playing Wizard of Oz screen idol Judy Garland in her self-penned play The Broads in a series of outdoor performances.

“I couldn’t believe I was being compared to all these villains,” says Maria.

“When the show went out, I had no idea the character would have that impact, and the amount of hate she got on Twitter was unbelievable.

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Maria Connolly

Maria Connolly

Maria Connolly

“There were comments about ‘God I hate her’ and ‘evil bitch’, and meanwhile I’m out on the street singing ‘forget your troubles, come on get happy.’

“You could not make my career up.”

The 48-year-old says she didn’t even get this reaction when she shot Rob Lowe in her first movie role On Dangerous Ground in 1996. Rob got his own back by killing her character.

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She had already appeared in series two of Line of Duty as evil Merchant who attacked Keeley Hawes’ character DI Lindsay Denton behind bars, pouring boiling water over her hands.

“I remember the stunt people kept asking, ‘does Maria know which kettle is the boiling one and which is the cold one?’

“It was amazing I got called back. When they contacted me the first time last year I was on tour and had work lined up until February 2022. Then all of that got cancelled so when they asked me again, I was free.

“I would have been gutted if I had lost that.”

Maria was reunited with Claire-Louise Cordwell who played her fellow prison officer Leland and when the pair appeared on screen it meant trouble.

Her gripping final scenes in the plot to kill DCI Jo Davidson took a full day to film in west Belfast with Vicky McClure and Martin Compston and the only downside was she didn’t get to meet Adrian Dunbar.

“We kept driving around to get it right. I was in the van with a stunt man who had worked on a James Bond movie, so I was living the dream.

“I met Vicky and Martin who are just amazing people. They are so down to earth and fantastic actors.”

The finale got a mixed reaction to the unmasking of the bent copper who had been pulling the strings for criminal gangs.

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Maria Connolly as warder Merchant

Maria Connolly as warder Merchant

Maria Connolly as warder Merchant

Maria says she was moved to tears during AC-12 boss Ted Hastings impassioned plea for values and decency.

“I cried during his speech about truth and integrity because that applies to every sector. A lot of the time people don’t speak up. I think it’s important to hang on to your own truth and integrity and treat people how you want to be treated.”

The mum of two says local playwright Gary Mitchell set her on the bad girl path, and her ability to terrify an audience has been getting her work ever since.

Gary cast her as a character called Psychopath in a BBC drama for kids and it’s kept the roles coming.

“Any time after that he had a psychopath in a play, I would get the part.

“I credit him with bringing out the bad girl in me.

“I remember getting cast in an advert for the DoE because I gave the best dirty look in the room, as the wife who gives her husband the filthiest look for speeding.”

Merchant let her scowl do the talking so viewers don’t realise Maria is from Belfast.

But it’s already opened doors with an offer of another villainous part from the BBC recently, which she had to turn down because of other work commitments.

When nearly two years’ worth of work disappeared because of Covid, Maria started writing and has penned six plays so far. She’s already an established theatre actor with stand-out roles in The History of the Peace (Accordin’ to My Ma) and Two Sore Legs.

The Broads, with Christina Nelson as Bette Midler and Ruby Campbell as Marilyn Monroe, has been a huge hit during the pandemic as they staged outdoor shows and picked up an Aisling arts award.

And Maria is back with pal Christine in I Got You Dolly, Love Cher, a dementia-friendly show which is being released by EastSide Arts as a DVD with a friendship pack.

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Soprano’s villain Silvio Dante

Soprano’s villain Silvio Dante

Soprano’s villain Silvio Dante

She’s also planning to perform Conversations with Angels with Brassneck Theatre this summer and has written a play about art collector Peggy Guggenheim for the inmates of Hydebank, performed via Zoom.

“I had to upskill during lockdown, but I love it and I’ve learned so much from it.”

With no news on whether there will be another series of Line of Duty for now she’s concentrating on playing Cher.

“With Cher I have to keep my face as still as possible. I’m going to look like my eyelids are pinned to my head,” says Maria.

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