Why ‘Starstruck’ Creator Rose Matafeo Wrote an Entire Season 2, Then Threw It Out and Started Over
Just a few weeks before she was supposed to start filming “Starstruck” in March 2020, Rose Matafeo found herself onstage at London’s “Magic Mike: Live” having a surreal, more than slightly panicked conversation with a gyrating Australian dancer.
“As he was making me touch his chest, he was like, ‘So do you think you’re gonna go back? The flights are all being canceled!’” Matafeo, who’s from New Zealand, recalls with a laugh that rings with disbelief even two years later. “It was the weirdest experience.”
After a lengthy delay, she still got to shoot the first season of “Starstruck” later that year — and, not for nothing, come out the other side with a new appreciation for “Magic Mike: Live” that would eventually make it into the second season, which drops Thursday on HBO Max.
As she did on that stage, Matafeo’s spent most of her life finding comedy wherever she can. Growing up in New Zealand, she obsessed over “Flight of the Conchords,” wore out Mitch Hedberg CDs, and pored over her library’s copy of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Seinlanguage.” She then wrote her own standup set for a local comedy festival and worked at an Auckland club for more chances to perform. “I loved films, and I loved drama, but I always sort of gravitated towards funnier roles,” Matafeo realizes now, because as a teen, “taking yourself seriously is fucking embarrassing.”
After moving to the U.K., she won the Edinburgh Comedy Award for her 2018 special “Horndog” (now available to stream on HBO Max) and converted new fans as a contestant on the beloved game show “Taskmaster.” Her “Starstruck” co-star Nikesh Patel, for one, knew of Matafeo well before auditioning for her show. “I was a fan of her standup, and had been to her shows a couple of times,” he says. “I just thought she was really funny, and really charming.”
The show’s first season debuted in 2021 to rapturous reviews that hailed it as one of the best romantic comedies in years, on television or otherwise. Matafeo’s vivacious performance as Jessie, a bright and wary woman who accidentally sleeps with a surprisingly lowkey movie star (played by Patel) before even more accidentally falling for him, felt like a breath of fresh air. It’s no surprise that Matafeo — the show’s creator, star, and co-writer — subsequently earned a whole new level of attention than ever before (such as, for instance, a spot on Variety’s list of Best TV Performances).
Suddenly, Matafeo’s years of self-promotion as a standup comic got a new purpose as she became the relatable face of the next evolution of romantic comedies. “At some point, you do get fucking sick of the sound of your own voice,” Matafeo admits. “But it’s also lovely when you’re promoting something you’ve poured a lot of time and effort and love into like ‘Starstruck.’ I am proud of it. I really love the show.”
During the limbo period between Season 2 premiering in the U.K. in February and the U.S. in March, Matafeo’s mostly been laying low. She meant to tweet behind the scenes trivia along with the BBC3 airings, but by the third episode, she completely forgot the show was even on and went to an escape room with friends instead. Most days, she’s found herself following what she calls the “Mrs. Dalloway of East London” way of living, aka buying flowers and wandering around the city. “I’ve got so much to do, but I also have nothing to do,” she explains. “I’m living, like, a weird semi-retired life.”
This relative inertia marks a significant change from the last couple of years, anyway. The second season of “Starstruck” began filming just one (1) day after the first premiered, giving her and the rest of the crew basically no time at all to absorb the show’s ongoing success. As shooting continued, though, more and more people began to recognize them on set.
“Sometimes in London there’ll be really unexpected dudes who are like, [finger guns] ‘STARSTRUCK!’ Really good!’” Mataeo says with a laugh. “It just reveals so much about them, that they watched this cute little romcom. My kind of guys!”
A year later, as Matafeo’s press tour reignites ahead of the HBO Max launch, she’s prepared for another round of questions about “Starstruck,” herself, and the rom-coms that inspire both, all of which she answers with infectious enthusiasm. Take, for instance, her firm belief that Sandra Bullock’s “absolutely elite slapstick” makes her an underrated physical comedian on par with Buster Keaton (“her falling over in ‘Miss Congeniality’ is actually perfect”). Bring up “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and she’ll passionately lay out the reasons one of her favorite films of all time belongs in the Criterion Collection (“I’m not joking. They need to fucking step up!”).
And yet for all the romantic comedies woven into the fabric of “Starstruck,” what first made the show so special, and what gives Season 2 its extra bite, are the ways in which she and writing partner Alice Snedden bring their own experiences to it. That, plus Matafeo and Patel’s comfortable and crackling chemistry, makes what could have been just a straightforward homage to romantic comedies feel extraordinarily real.
“Our own histories will become as much a source for references as a film,” Matafeo says of co-writing with a friend. “Like, ‘You know when you had that awful fight with so and so?’ ‘Remember when I talked you down from that, and you were crying on the way home, or when you showed up to my house in tears?’ That becomes such an asset, to be writing with your best friend. You can just key into it immediately.”
For Season 2, which has no choice but to show what’s on the other side of a love story’s traditional “happy ending”, they (plus new writer Nic Sampson) needed to tap into their shared histories even more. After the first season ends with Jessie deciding not to go home to New Zealand so she can stay with Tom, the second opens with a sharp cut from their romantic kiss to Jessie freaking out mere seconds later.
“Originally, as the story goes, we had written a second series at the time we were shooting the first one, and then we were like, ‘We need to rewrite it,’” Matafeo reveals. “When we got to the end of series one, we realized it would take all of the air out to have a time jump…so we just went, ‘Let’s see every moment of it unfold rather than make an audience have to put it together.’”
Even though Jessie’s ostensibly chosen to stay in England for Tom, she keeps refusing to admit as much or define their relationship, to Tom’s increasing frustration. From there, Season 2 lets Matafeo and Patel dig deeper into their characters’ unique bond. “Rose is such an instinctive, collaborative scene partner,” says Patel. “Comedy is not what I came up doing, so being in the presence of comedians who are really good actors — because it’s definitely not the case that one meets the other, and vice versa — really gives you a lot of confidence to push or heighten a line.”
As Tom and Jessie each learn what they both actually want from a relationship, the show also sheds real insight on what it means for someone not just to love, but to become an actual partner. In a refreshing twist on the usual dynamic, Jessie is never desperate for a boyfriend, nor does Tom ever really question his attraction to her. She’s already a complete person, and that’s why he likes her so much. “We never actually intentionally go into the writers’ room like, ‘We want to flip this on its head.’ Everything is motivated by those characters and what we think would be true to them,” Matafeo says. That being said, she allows, “it’s maybe interesting to see the ‘expected’ roles reversed, in the sense of a man wanting commitment and a woman not wanting to commit.”
There’s something undeniably cathartic for her about playing a character like Jessie, who’s quick with a joke and charming enough to completely bewitch, bother, and bewilder Tom no matter the circumstances. So while she pours plenty of herself into the character, she’s also quick to point out the differences between them. “I’m personally so much more romantic than Jessie,” says Matafeo, a diehard Pisces who compares herself to Shirley MacLaine’s lovelorn “Sweet Charity” heroine and used to end her “Horndog” set fully weeping to K-pop. “I chase love so much, to my own detriment.”
Jessie, she contends, is “far more confident and more principled” than she is. “She sticks up for herself a lot. I actually am very much not like that,” Matafeo continues with a wry smile. “I would change my entire personality if it meant that someone would like me.” (For what it’s worth: If Matafeo had to guess Jessie’s sign, she’s stuck between Scorpio and Aries.)
There is, however, an important personality trait that the two do have in common, and that Matafeo is especially happy to have included in her own version of the rom-coms she grew up loving so much.
“I love seeing women in films and television just, enjoy living,” she says. “It’s such a strangely low standard, but there’s something really infectious about about characters who just enjoy the fucking crazy ups and downs of life.” That, at least, is something Matafeo can relate to. “Even the shit parts, we relish. When we’re going through the shittest part of life we’re just like, ‘Fuck yeah. This is living.’”
Season 1 of “Starstruck” is currently available to stream on HBO Max. Season 2 premieres Thursday, March 24.