Rose Matafeo Is Reconstructing the Rom-Com (2024)

If romantic comedies are to be believed, airports are extremely dramatic locales. It isn’t uncommon for characters to sprint through the departures terminal (“Love Actually”), confess their feelings by the baggage claim (“Garden State”), or fall in love with a stranger at the gate (“Sleepless in Seattle”). “Starstruck,” whose second season was just released on HBO Max, takes a different approach. When the heroine, Jessie, intentionally misses her flight home to New Zealand, choosing instead to stay in England with her not-quite boyfriend, Tom, their mutual elation quickly gives way to the reality of the situation: Jessie has wasted an expensive ticket, upended her life for a still-nascent relationship, and, to top it all off, she’s forgotten her bags on the bus to Heathrow. A minute later, she and Tom are banging on the windows as it rolls away, begging to be let back on.

Rose Matafeo, the thirty-year-old creator and star of the series, delights in dropping her skeptical protagonist into such overwrought rom-com scenarios and then following those tropes to their logical conclusions. Jessie—who can be funny and warm, but also selfish, set in her ways, and near-pathologically avoidant—is savvy to the conventions of the genre. (When Tom gifts her a Joni Mitchell CD for Christmas, as in “Love Actually,” she’s both impressed and indignant: “He f*cking Alan Rickman-ed me!”) As her own life begins to veer into Richard Curtis territory, she reacts in recognizably human ways. “Is this a crazy decision?” she asks Tom, desperately, just before they discover that her luggage is missing. “Yes,” he responds, rubbing her back. “But I’m glad you made it. It stopped me from doing something crazy. An airport chase would have been horrible. You know I have a bad knee.”

When I met Matafeo for coffee in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, this past winter, I asked about her desire to subvert cliché. “I’m less interested in what you’d normally see in a rom-com,” she told me. Instead, she explained, “I’m pursuing my own interests—like what the characters’ personalities might be, and how they’d react instinctually.” Jessie is a twentysomething transplant from New Zealand juggling multiple part-time jobs; Tom, played by the British actor Nikesh Patel, is an action star on the cusp of A-list fame. She’s oblivious to his celebrity until the morning after their meet-cute, in the bathroom of a London club, and their uneven status is one of the show’s central conflicts. In a moment that encapsulates “Starstruck”’s oblique, unexpected comedy, she emerges from his apartment and almost trips over a scrum of paparazzi. The paps, instead of berating her, à la “Notting Hill,” immediately dismiss her. “It’s just the cleaner,” one man says, lowering his camera. “Sorry, love. It’s an honest job.” Jessie laughs and bends down to pick up a random bag of trash. “Yeah, sorry,” she says, exiting the scene with an awkward bow. “Thank you. Have a great day.”

Matafeo is also a standup comic, and her routines relentlessly intellectualize her approach to love and relationships: she analyzes the roots of her attraction to men (“I’d probably f*ck the patriarchy if he had nice arms”), reflects on post-breakup rituals in the era of the shared Netflix account, and defines horniness as “girls putting a hundred per cent into something that is absolutely not worth it.” Her character in “Starstruck” serves as an outlet for her to follow her id to the end of the line; in real life, Matafeo would never gyrate on random diners to the tune of Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack,” as Jessie does after a successful hookup. That sense of wish fulfillment heightens the show’s occasionally dreamlike quality. But Jessie’s panic attack after missing her flight marks a blunt return to reality—and the new season is Matafeo’s vision of what might happen to rom-com characters after the credits roll.

Matafeo was born at home in Auckland, in her parents’ bed, the last of three kids. Her father is Samoan, and her mother is Scottish and Croatian; they met in the Rastafarian Church, and raised Matafeo in the same tradition. She discovered her love of both performance and rom-coms early. At thirteen, she was turned away from a comedy course on the ground that she was too young to audition. By seventeen, she was honing the hour that would win her Best Newcomer at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival—and watching “Bridget Jones’s Diary” on a weekly basis. At the time, Matafeo joked, there were “legitimately maybe... five?” female comedians in New Zealand, adding that comedy clubs often had just one woman in the lineup. “They saw us as the variety act,” she said. “Sometimes it was, like, We only have room for the magician or the woman, so which one is it gonna be?” In “Starstruck,” she plays the lead, but she is keenly aware that actors who look like her have historically been cast as the witty but loveless sidekick. As she once put it in a set, “I am ethnically ambiguous, and I’ve got curly hair. I’m the one who will say something sassy and then never be heard from again.”

In 2015, Matafeo moved to London; she wanted to push her standup career to the next stage, and her boyfriend at the time, the comedian James Acaster, already lived in the U.K. Moving “was a great kick up the ass,” she told me. “And it bloody worked out.” Audiences and critics responded enthusiastically to her candid introspection and her “flamboyant sense of her own ridiculousness.” In 2018, Matafeo’s “Horndog” won the top comedy prize at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. (In one memorable bit, she described the experience of updating a period-tracking app on her phone: “I almost feel like I’m writing some sort of entry into a wartime journal.... It’s, like, ‘Day five. Still bleeding. I miss my wife so much.’”) HBO aired a filmed version of “Horndog” before signing on to distribute “Starstruck,” which Matafeo had successfully pitched to the BBC.

The idea for “Starstruck” first came to Matafeo in late 2017, on a flight back to New Zealand in which she was “slightly drunk” on whiskey. Some friends had recently met a celebrity who was having a drink by himself at a pub, and ended up having a wild night out with him. (Matafeo won’t name the celebrity.) She mashed that anecdote together with her affection for rom-coms and her own personal history. It could be funny, she mused, for a woman who was dubious about both romance and fame to meet a movie star and fall in love—a kind of reversal, and subversion, of the “Notting Hill” formula. She also knew that she wanted to play the lead. “I had an interest in writing something I could be in as who I am,” she said. “I’m not embarrassed of emotion, and feeling things, and sharing things that don’t make me look like the most put-together person.” (In the end, viewers’ responses to Jessie’s beliefs and occasionally questionable behavior—like her tendency to cut bait during difficult conversations—had been instructive for Matafeo: “They’re, like, ‘Girl, no, what the hell are you doing?’ And I’m, like, ‘Oh, yeah, O.K., cool. So that’s a bad thing.’”)

Matafeo developed the pilot for the BBC by herself, and eventually brought her friend and frequent collaborator, Alice Snedden, on board to co-write scripts for Season 1. (Matafeo and Snedden met years ago at a comedy club in Auckland, when Snedden, then a bartender, served Matafeo drinks after a performance; within months, they were working together on a sketch-comedy series, “Funny Girls.”) They planned to begin filming “Starstruck” in London in March, 2020. Matafeo remembers walking through LAX at the onset of the pandemic and staring at a line of people wearing masks. Avalon, the production company, cancelled the first readthrough and instructed her to start writing a second season, so she decided to return to Auckland. “I was convinced that it wouldn’t end up happening,” Matafeo recalled. “I was, like, Well, that’s that, then. I’ve had a good life. I guess I’ll just go home and become a farmer or an accountant.”

When the show’s first season was filmed, in the fall of 2020, Matafeo realized that she and Snedden would have to significantly rewrite the scripts for Season 2. Just as they had embedded parts of Matafeo in Jessie, they’d wanted to leave room for Tom to be shaped by the actor who portrayed him. “We basically half-wrote a character,” Matafeo told me. Later drafts were tailored more closely to Patel, who had imbued the role with unexpected tenderness, as well as his own understated humor. “He’s really good at being both dry and warm,” she said. “Also, he makes Tom hot. He’s got a charm and a magnetism that is hard to find.” Perhaps most important, unlike other men who had auditioned for the part—whom she described as “incapable of letting Jessie be funny”—he was comfortable being sweet.

I wasn’t meant to meet anyone else from “Starstruck” that day at the coffee shop, but as we chatted Matafeo kept an eye on her phone. She was travelling with Snedden and Emma Sidi, who plays Jessie’s roommate on the show and, until recently, was Matafeo’s roommate in real life. The trio are close friends; before Matafeo and Snedden met Sidi in New York, they’d been in California, and had rented a Winnebago and driven down the Pacific Coast Highway. Now all three women were sharing an Airbnb nearby. “I think they may come and join?” Matafeo said, quickly tapping out a message. “If that’s O.K.”

Snedden arrived first. As she unzipped her coat, I stood up to shake her hand. “Wow, that’s very formal,” she said, then gamely took my hand before ordering a cortado. I asked if she saw parallels between Matafeo and Jessie. She looked at Matafeo. “I don’t think you’re, like... all of that character,” she said, slowly, and they both burst out laughing. Matafeo might fantasize about writing alarmingly honest notes to friends and ex-lovers in the U.K. before returning to New Zealand; Jessie composes the letters, licks the stamps, and posts them, sobbing all the while. Snedden continued, “At various points she’ll be a heightened version of what she might be like in real life, or the show might explore something that she’s thought about but wouldn’t necessarily do herself. She’s smart enough to have opinions on things and then play into those things knowing that that isn’t how she would act in real life, so we can have philosophical discussions.” She paused. “I mean, I’m talking about minor philosophy. Stuff like, Can you love two people? I’m not talking about Nietzche!”

Both Snedden and Matafeo are unabashed fans of the rom-com, and they’ve managed to create a series that lights up those same pleasure centers while interrogating some of the underlying tropes. As Snedden told me, “If I wrote a show by myself, it would just be a lot of sex scenes and a lot of kissing.” Matafeo, for her part, is more inclined to question her knee-jerk reaction to such moments. The palpable push and pull between these two sensibilities—die-hard romantic and romantic skeptic—is one of “Starstruck”’s great strengths, and Jessie herself is a product of that tension. The primary obstacle to her relationship with Tom isn’t a secret movie-star girlfriend waiting in the wings but the far more mundane fact of being, as Matafeo put it, “commitment-phobic” and “weird.” “Starstruck” delivers a gentle romance almost in spite of its heroine’s reservations, and it doesn’t shy away from how her most lovable traits—her sense of humor, her spontaneity—can also chafe, or deflect vulnerability. The series eschews B and C plots entirely, focussing instead on a single character and the way she moves through the world.

“I am ethnically ambiguous, and I’ve got curly hair,” Matafeo has said. “I’m the one who will say something sassy and then never be heard from again.”

In February, I Zoomed with Matafeo and Snedden as they sat in the writers’ room at Avalon, which is in West London. Large whiteboards flecked with half-erased words covered the walls; the women shared a wide wooden desk. They were workshopping scripts for two future projects—one series and one feature—which they declined to discuss, in part because they weren’t confident that they would get picked up. “Never tell anyone your dreams, because what if they don’t come true?” Matafeo quipped. “That’s very much the ethos behind the secrecy on all of our projects.” Her thirtieth birthday was the following day, and she confessed to a “slight mental breakdown” about the milestone.

The conversation turned to fame. “The nature of celebrity is so changeable,” Snedden commented. “It’s uneven—it’s unpredictable.” In one scene in “Starstruck,” Tom travels through London unimpeded; in the next, he’s mobbed outside a bar. That unpredictability adds dynamism to the plot. Snedden recalled being stunned when the Instagram gossip account DeuxMoi ran a story about “Starstruck” filming in London. “That was very meta,” Matafeo said. “Because I remember being, like, Wait—no! We aren’t celebrities.” Snedden started to nod, then looked sidelong at Matafeo. “Well—you kind of are, though.”

I asked them whether, when they started on “Starstruck,” they had considered that the show—which is, in part, about the discomfort of fame—might raise their own profiles. “I am nervous about Rose,” Snedden said. “I have had conversations with her where I’m, like, ‘Don’t get too famous! It can do crazy things to your mind!’” (Earlier, Matafeo had explained what it felt like to watch her own acting during the editing process: “I’ve now begun referring to myself as her. As in, I’ll say, ‘Why is she doing that?’ or, ‘Can we get a different take where she doesn’t say that?’ It’s like exposure therapy to your own being.”) “That said,” Snedden continued, “if her life style is what I thought a celebrity’s life style would be like—” She laughed.

“I putter about,” Matafeo said frankly. She took a sip of tea and looked at Snedden. “Do you not think that being from New Zealand affects that? There’s an embarrassment to playing the game. There’s just this voice inside your head going, Who do you think you are? Oh, you think you’re fancy, eh?” They cited tall-poppy syndrome, a term common to Australia and New Zealand, which describes how people who achieve too much are punished for their success. “Weirdly, being humble is a matter of national pride,” Matafeo concluded. “When you get too tall, they have to chop you down. So you have to stay humble.”

Season 2 hinges on a different sort of reality check. “Starstruck” isn’t the first show to present the life of a relationship after the heady will-they-won’t-they stage, but Matafeo is a notably keen observer of the rewards and challenges that come with a deepening romance. “Jessie’s constantly trying to prove to people that she didn’t stay for Tom, when, really, she did,” Matafeo said. “She’s quite an independent character, and she resents the idea that anyone would think that about her.” It takes time for her to look at those feelings directly.

Near the end of the new season, Jessie has an epiphany as she and Tom are drifting in separate rowboats. Matafeo’s co-writers, Snedden and Nic Sampson, had argued that this, finally, was the moment for the grand romantic gesture. “Nic and I were, like, ‘You’ve got to get into the water!’” Snedden recalled, noting that Matafeo had initially rejected the idea as “too full-on.”

“Well, I was the one who needed to get into that water, which was likely to give me giardia,” Matafeo said. They had emerged from the writers’-room debate with a monologue that was both sweet and realistic. “I’m a very difficult person, and it turns out I’m not very good at being a girlfriend,” Jessie tells Tom. “I do things and I don’t think about what happens next. I haven’t changed. I haven’t had time to change, because I just realized.... But I now know what is wrong with me, at least.” The scene gestures at her emotional growth in a way that remains true to her character: impulsive, unvarnished, ardent.

“The whole time, I was, like, Oh, my God, we can’t have a cheesy speech in the middle of a pond!” Matafeo told me later. “The nature of the show is not being so on-the-nose with that stuff. But there comes a time, I think, where real life gets super cheesy.” Reading it on the page, she had balked. But in the moment, waist-deep in mucky water, she’d thought, “This feels right.”

Rose Matafeo Is Reconstructing the Rom-Com (2024)

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