Belfast Telegraph

Derry Girls actress Diona Doherty's new role patrolling Irish border in Brexit mockumentary

The up and coming Northern Ireland actress talks to Stephanie Bell about her career and her hit podcast with comedian husband Sean Hegarty

Life for Londonderry actress Diona Doherty has never been busier. Set to appear in several new TV series this year she is also enjoying life as a newly-wed and busy stepmum to three boys. Her marriage to Lurgan comedian Sean Hegarty in 2016 has added several new dimensions to her life. She has moved some distance from her native city of Derry to settle in Craigavon, is a new mum to Sean's three adorable boys - James (14), Charlie (10) and Tom (9) - and has teamed up with her husband for a comic weekly podcast called Hanging with the Hegartys.

Her career too has also taken off in recent years and she is now a regular on TV.

Fresh from her role in Derry Girls and the new series of Give My Head Peace she will be bringing more laughter to our TV screens as part of a new mockumentary, Soft Border Patrol, starting tonight on BBC1 Northern Ireland.

We will also soon be seeing her in a new Channel 5 series of 24 Hours in A&E, where she worked alongside Richard E Grant, and a TG4 film, Penance.

Along with a couple of stage plays, last year was one of the busiest yet for the young actress.

At 28 she has established herself as an all-rounder, as comfortable in serious roles as she is at making us laugh.

And after her busy 2017 she is now poised for even more success this year as she finalises contracts for an American movie with Hallmark and a new TV series.

Both are at a delicate stage of negotiation so she can't reveal anything further.

She says: "It feels strange because I was so busy in 2017 but nothing is coming out until this year and it feels like I have been lying to all my friends.

"I absolutely love comedy but I also did a few plays last year and with drama I feel really stretched and satisfied. I am as happy doing dark and psychological roles as I am doing comedy.

"It just so happens I have done a lot of comedy recently with Derry Girls, Give My Head Peace and now this new series Soft Border Patrol for the BBC.

"I love both and I don't want to be typecast so early in my career. I want to do a variety."

Diona says she knew as a child she wanted to be a performer and went to Queen's University Belfast to study drama.

She considered going to London in search of opportunities but as the industry was starting to thrive here opted to stay in Northern Ireland, a decision which she now feels very grateful for.

She credits Pamela Ballantine's busy schedule with securing the first work which brought in some cash. She laughs as she recalls: "My very first paid role was 10 years ago in The Vagina Monologues in the Theatre at the Mill with the lovely Olivia Nash.

"I only got it because Pamela Ballantine was doing it and was so busy she couldn't make a few shows and I was asked to stand in for her. I was on UTV Life a couple of weeks ago and I thanked her for being so busy that I got my start in the acting world.

"I am so glad now I didn't go to London. The industry really is thriving in Northern Ireland and I've been very lucky to keep busy. I know some people who went to London and are now doing jobs they hadn't intended to."

Being a Derry girl herself she was thrilled to be given a role in the hit TV series Derry Girls, which has been officially ranked as the biggest series ever in Northern Ireland since records began.

Although a native of the city, Diona says her age was against her when it came to casting the main characters, who are all schoolgirls.

Instead, she landed a guest lead in episode four as the character Katya, a Ukrainian who came to stay with the Quinn family.

She says: "It was absolutely brilliant to be part of it. Derry Girls is hilarious. I was slightly older to be playing one of the central characters but the casting team kept in touch and said they would find something for me and Katya came up. I just thought 'Oh class' when they told me she was Ukrainian.

"It's been brilliant and for me it was fantastic to get the chance to work with Tommy Tiernan as I have always been such a fan of his growing up; to get to perform alongside him was brilliant. He is real gentleman."

It was a similar experience when invited to take part in the recent series of Give My Head Peace - a local show she had also watched as a child.

In awe of its cast, she is thrilled to now be able to regard them as friends after working alongside them.

She says: "I remember the first time I saw Tim McGarry walking down he street in Belfast and thinking 'Oh my God, there's Da'. Now I can call him a friend and colleague, which is just surreal.

"I had never performed for TV in front of a live audience before, which is a whole new skillset in itself and that was a new experience.

"Everyone on the team is very close and they are such a loyal bunch of guys."

As well as her own busy career, her husband's star is also rising and Diona has been supporting Sean as he seeks further fame through the very first Ireland's Got Talent.

She was there with his three boys to see him storm through the first round last month.

The couple met six years ago, and married in November 2016 in Cabra Castle, Co Cavan, but due to work commitments, only took their honeymoon last February.

A video clip of their trip to New York and the Caribbean went viral online when it was viewed by over 2,000 people in less than 24 hours.

They also have a popular following for their weekly podcast - Hanging With The Hegartys - where they share their musings about life. It is a showbiz marriage which works well for their busy careers.

Diona says: "I met Sean six years ago when we were both performing our own shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I organised for all the Northern Ireland acts to get together and Sean and I just hit it off straightaway.

"The fact that both of us are performers helps."

By way of illustration she adds: "Sean took really sick recently and was supposed to be a guest on UTV Life and couldn't make it and they asked me to step in. The guy from UTV said to me 'How handy is it that you two are married?'."

Marriage has seen her become a stepmum to Sean's three boys, a role she is relishing. She says: "It's brilliant. It is like a crash course in parenting for when I have my own.

"I took the boys to see him in Ireland's Got Talent and that was a great night. They get to go on all sorts of sets with us, which is exciting for them.

"With our jobs the boys can see that a career in entertainment or performing arts is a real possibility and they are already starting to follow in their dad's footsteps.

"Tom got up to DJ and did some beat boxing at our wedding and James has done a bit of acting."

Diona says she faced one of her biggest challenges yet for Soft Border Patrol. With no script the entire cast had to think on the spot, creating the comedy as filming took place.

Soft Border Patrol was filmed and set in a version of Northern Ireland where Brexit has meant a soft border.

It centres round the antics of teams, patrolling the often twisting highways and byways of the border on push bike and by car, as they try to help commuters cross the border smoothly and swiftly, but not always successfully.

Made by the Glasgow-based Comedy Unit, the series was developed as part of the BBC Writers room initiative - along with BBC Northern Ireland Comedy.

Such is their strong professionalism and determination to adhere to the law, the teams scour the countryside for anyone or anything (fish included) found to be unofficially crossing the border by land, sea or along the coast between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Headed up by CEO Lisa McCoy, the SBP teams are a force to be reckoned with - or at least they like to think so. Diona plays Tracy Jones, part of a patrol team working alongside Patrick Buchanan, who plays Connor Lafferty.

Also in the cast is Karen Hassan, who plays Soft Border Patrol CEO Lisa McCoy, alongside comedian Neil Delamere as Niall Sweeney, Head of Virtual Border.

For Diona, having to improvise and work without a script was a challenge. "It was quite daunting," she says.

"We had no lines whatsoever. I had to draw on my comedy roots and it was good because it allowed me to have a comedy brain.

"It meant you had the pressure of having to think on the spot but at the same time there was so much freedom which I have never had on any type of project before and you got to experiment and be creative.

"I am with Paddy Buchanan and we encounter a few characters while we are out patrolling all over the north.

"The way it was filmed we didn't get to meet much of the rest of the cast members until the wrap party, which was also very unusual.

"It is a farcical force and nobody really knows what they are doing.

"Which is a bit like our political situation at the minute, where no one seems to know what's happening."

The first of three episodes of Soft Border Patrol, starring Diona, will be screened on BBC1 NI tonight, at 10.35pm

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