Hanging with the Hegartys... Sean and Diona on love, marriage and always seeing the funny side
She's in Derry Girls, Soft Border Patrol and the new Lidl ads, while he's a regular on the stand-up circuit. The real-life couple tell Lee Henry about their online courtship and juggling comedy careers
They're two of Northern Ireland's most exciting young performers, the former a razor-sharp comic actor who has appeared in Channel 4's outrageously popular sitcom Derry Girls and BBC Northern Ireland's improvised satirical sketch show Soft Border Patrol, the latter a confident stand-up who made it all the way through to the semi-finals of Ireland's Got Talent in 2018 with his Casio keyboard-playing musical alter ego act Rodney.
They've got the looks, they've had the luck and, having married in 2017, they've got the love, but for husband and wife team Diona and Sean Hegarty, it's not the glitz and the glam that makes them happiest, the on-set shenanigans or immediate gratification that a live audience offers - it's the simple act of making each other laugh that's the biggest buzz of all.
"We definitely bounce stuff off each other," says Diona (29), who hails from Londonderry, and credits her husband, from Lurgan, with facilitating and encouraging her own recent forays into the stand-up comedy arena. "Our relationship was founded on laughter. We met at a comedy festival, the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, and we have a carbon copy sense of humour. We know how to push each other's buttons."
Their eventual hook-up followed an unusual online courtship. Despite sharing the bill at a comedy gig in Derry, the pair only spoke in person after sussing one another out via YouTube and Facebook. "I watched Sean's jokes online and assumed that he would be loud and confident, whereas, when I actually met him, I realised he was quite shy and very humble," says Diona.
"Little did I know, Sean had also been checking me out on Facebook and by the time the Edinburgh Fringe came around and we actually met, he was able to name all of my aunties and uncles, which was quite impressive. It worked out perfectly - we spent the rest of the festival in what I like to call our 'relationship bootcamp' and by the end of the month, we had our whole future planned out."
When it came to popping the question, there was only one destination on Sean's mind. "He took me back to Edinburgh," Diona recalls. "He pretended that he had a last minute gig, then he tricked me into hiking up Arthur's Seat, where he pretended to slip on a rock and whipped out a ring. I said yes, although I genuinely still thought there was a gig and started rushing him back down the hill so he would make it on time."
Two years later, the couple had their nuptials at Cabra Castle, Co Cavan with a humanist ceremony Diona describes as "super inclusive" for family and friends from a variety of backgrounds. "Neither Sean or I are religious, so our ceremony was way more personal to us. We had a Christmas-style wedding fully equipped with a choir, Father Christmas and a turkey dinner, although we have since both gone vegetarian."
Television audiences will, of course, recognise Diona as the promiscuous Ukrainian exchange student Katya from series one of Derry Girls and the dim-witted border agent Tracey from Soft Border Patrol, the second series of which has just finished on BBC NI.
With Derry Girls back on screens, Sean (35) describes how the popularity of the show has impacted on his and Diona's lives.
"It has its ups and downs," he smiles. "Sometimes it's good, like when you get to skip the queue in Boojum, but there are downsides too, like when you're trying to slip out of the back of the club with Hollywood actor Jamie Dornan and his bodyguards tell you to stop following him."
"It's been surreal," adds Diona. "Once I was getting the train to Belfast and another passenger asked if I needed help, assuming I was Ukrainian. When I responded, 'Sure I only live two seconds away', he leapt out of his skin. We film Soft Border Patrol outdoors and we constantly get lorries beeping and people shouting their support out of car windows. It's lovely that so many people like the shows. They're really putting regional comedy on the map."
Perhaps the pair's most cherished moments as performers, however, have come away from the bustling TV sets and live auditoria that have marked their careers to date while recording their intimate two-hander podcast Hanging with the Hegartys.
Now 45 episodes deep, it's generated thousands of subscriptions and morphed from an audio to a video podcast in the space of just 18 months.
"We started the podcast because we had both been doing quite well and we thought people might like to listen in on our conversations," says Sean.
"We shed a bit of light on what actually goes on behind the scenes. We've never sugar-coated an issue, never been anything but truthful and real about the industry. Hopefully it provides a fresh, honest insight into the arts, while displaying our silly, dry senses of humour.
"We're grateful to have a platform and do what we enjoy, spending time together."
Recording the podcast is also a much less pressurised approach to comedy than, say, ad libbing on Soft Border Patrol, which Diona admits is both "scary and liberating".
"There's no script, so we try to be professional in character, but you can't help just going for the whacky and seeing if it will make the cut," she adds. "It's so much fun because you just don't know what anyone is going to say."
Having spent their respective lives studying the work of other comedians, both Diona and Sean have developed the skills to tickle funny bones in whatever format they're currently engaged.
Sean "grew up on Billy Connolly, Eddie Murphy and Bill Hicks", while his father introduced him to the work of Tommy Cooper, Russ Abbott and Harry Enfield. "I'm a huge fan of silly, nonsensical humour," he explains.
Diona, on the other hand, was naturally drawn toward female performers. "I love Dawn French and I'm mad about comedy actresses Kristen Wiig and Doon Mackichan," she says. "I'm also a big fan of Bo Burnham because I really enjoy musical comedy. And I love those, 'Oh my God, we do that as well!' moments in comedy, so Peter Kay is a big hero of mine."
Being husband and wife makes for a satisfying work-life balance. Recently, Diona and Sean were lucky enough share the bill at gigs in Galway and Limerick. "It's really handy when we get to gig together," says Diona. "We really love our wee road trips."
When it comes to referring to each other in their material, however, both prefer to keep it professional. "When I'm on stage, despite wearing a wedding ring, I actually just tell girlfriend jokes when referring to a partner," Sean explains. "I focus on wordplay and fast-paced jokes, and if I started throwing in real-life stories, people would get confused. Absolutely nothing I say on stage is real."
So what's it really like being husband and wife performers? The set up comes with its complications, like having to spend time apart while filming. But the positives far outweigh the negatives. "Last year, for example, Sean came down with food poisoning the night before an appearance on UTV Life," says Diona. "He had to be there at 8am the following morning but thankfully I was able to step in as the guest and chat about my work instead." Win, win.
When they're not working, the two enjoy bingeing on shows on Netflix and are "huge fans" of The Office US, in particular. "We've watched all nine seasons eight times," Diona reveals. "We live for The Office," says Sean. "Rainn Wilson and Steve Carell display some of the finest comedy acting in that series," Diona agrees. "I also love Two Doors Down, The Royle Family and Gavin and Stacey."
Sean's three children - James (14), Charlie (10) and Tom (9) - also play a big part in their lives. "I love spending time with my kids," says Sean, "from going on big walks and adventures, to just relaxing with a movie or playing a board-game. I love the great outdoors and bushcraft, mountains and forests. I'd love to film some videos of me making things in the wilderness.
"Last summer, I built my own cabin out of second-hand pallet wood. It took me just over two weeks and I'll literally give anybody that ever comes to my house a tour of it."
As for their future jobs and plans, Diona has just been unveiled as one of the new faces of Lidl, in television ads and billboards across the country, and will be performing in The Real Housewives of Norn Iron, by Leesa Harker, in Belfast's Grand Opera House in April.
Sean, meanwhile, has a busy year of gigs ahead and hopes for greater things with Hanging with the Hegartys.
"I'd love for our podcast to be developed for TV," he says. "I'd also love to perform more stand-up abroad and possibly even film a special. Who knows what the future holds for us both, but if we continue being this happy while getting to work with each other more, then that's all we can ask for."