Rose Matafeo Looks Beyond the Rom-Com Happy Ending
Happily ever afters are the hallowed promise of rom-coms. The two leads finally kiss and you can feel the credits rushing to roll to keep viewers from thinking too hard about whether they will last afterwards. That afterwards is exactly where season two of Rose Matafeo’s hit HBO max rom-com Starstruck—about a “little rat nobody” and a movie star falling for each other—picks up. In the first episode, Matafeo’s Jessie is fresh off a big season one finale decision to miss her flight home to New Zealand to stay in London to be with Tom (Nikesh Patel). There’s a heavy silence between them as they sit on a bus and a question that Tom will ask out loud later in the season hangs between them: “Have I ruined your life?”
“Rom-coms rarely have sequels because you want to end on a high,” Matafeo explains to ELLE.com. “What we did was just naturally follow the question posed at the end of the first season, which in a more meta way, is a question for all rom-coms: What happens directly after the happy ending?” Some things are the same this season — there’s still tension because Tom and his friends work in cinema and Jessie works at a cinema. But, some things aren’t. Namely, Jessie starts to realize that wanting to be with someone and actually being with someone are two very different things. While Matafeo, a Pisces, isn’t sure she believes in astrology (“I broadly don’t believe in it, but then I do when it applies to me”), this season is peak Pisces—full of big feelings, emotional churn, and yes, dreamy romance.
We spoke to Matafeo over Zoom in March about how self-awareness is a key part of love stories, doing improv with her grandmother, and using Hinge to find Boggle opponents.
Jessie has a habit of getting herself into a pickle and then wondering how she got there. She reminds me of the guy from the hotdog sketch in I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson. Throughout this season I kept thinking, “Jessie, you’re in a hotdog suit, please look in a mirror.” How did you decide that self awareness would be one of the journeys she needs to go on this season?
It’s funny that the response from most people watching the show, as you just said, is like, “Jessie, what are you doing?” Honestly? I don’t see it a lot of the time. I’m like, “She’s just a normal gal living her life. What’s wrong with her?” And it’s like, “Oh my God, maybe there’s a lot of me in this.” She’s such a confident character, and you see that in the first series, she likes who she is. I love the seemingly contradictory elements of someone who is very confident, but also knows they’re a fuck-up. Sometimes it’s hard for those two parts to talk to each other.
A massive part of the second series is just her gaining humility and perspective. Often with people, especially when you’re at this age, you go, “Well, that’s just who I am.” And then there’s the actual responsibility of going, “Oh, I actually can change as a person. That’s actually within my control.” I think it’s a really great journey for her to go on.
One of the central plot points this season is the fallout from the messy decision Jessie made to send emotional letters to exes and loved ones before catching her flight home to New Zealand To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before-style. Letter writing is such an old school thing for a millennial heroine to do. What was the inspiration behind that?
I felt like it was just an interesting plot device to use to bring in characters from her past who come into play further on into the series, like her ex-boyfriend. Also Jessie’s character is a bit of an old school gal. She loves old shit, very similar to me. It’s very much something I would do if I was leaving the country—use up all my good stationary because I couldn’t be bothered moving it back to New Zealand. I would just write lots of emotional letters to people.
Also, on Starstruck we kind of actively avoid shots of phones and screens and technology that dates the show. So many of the romcoms I love avoid those things as well. It adds this hopeful, timeless quality to the story, even though it’s very much a modern story.
You co-wrote the entire first season with your best friend Alice Snedden (who is an absolute scene-stealer in a new episode that takes place at Tom’s house) but this season you also added Nic Sampson as a third co-writer. What did getting a male perspective bring to the show?
Both Alice and Nic worked on the same sketch show that I worked on in my early twenties in New Zealand. We’ve performed in the same improv group for many years as well so we’ve got a massive familiarity with each other. He was brought in for just being a talented writer, but never actually intentionally as a male perspective.
Me and Alice are very overbearing personalities and presences and will often just bully him into something or gang up on him, but then often they’ll gang up on me as well. It’s great having three people because two people can always out-vote each other. Our writing process barely involves any writing. It’s actually a lot of discussing life and our own experiences with love and relationships, and a lot of it’s just talking shit, and then injecting that into the script, and motivating characters with things that feel inspired by lengthy discussions we have in the writers’ rooms. Tom is like a conduit of Alice a lot of the time in her sense of humor. She’s a real advocate for Tom, as I am an advocate for Jessie because she is so close to me. We’ll have arguments which will essentially be arguments between Tom and Jessie. Alice has very different concepts of love and relationships than I do. I’m often much more cynical, and boring, and morose. Also Nic is an amazing actor — he plays Steve in this series—and he would often act out and workshop scripts in the role of Tom, and I’d be Jessie, and then Alice could watch and make notes as we read out the scripts.
Is there any specific thing that you and Alice clashed over?
Alice always wants to write in more sex scenes because she’s a total perv. She always wants to write in more kisses and stuff, and I’m always writing them out. I don’t mind kissing, it’s great, it’s fine, but I’m also a prude and she’s not a prude. She always wants to inject romance and love. She’s a hopeless romantic, but in a slightly different way, where she wants to just see them get on. And I’m like, “No, I don’t want to see that. There’s nothing interesting about seeing good people get along.” I think we temper each other’s natures in that sense.
Usually in a rom-com, it’s the guy waffling on the idea of commitment but in this show Tom is this rock and Jessie is the noncommittal one. Can you talk about your decision to subvert that trope of “a woman struggling to lock down a man”? It’s a really refreshing dynamic.
Sometimes with Starstruck, there are intentional subversions of those tropes, and then sometimes they’re accidental. That happened with the opening of episode 2 of the first series where she’s dancing down the canal after having sex. A lot of people were like, “Oh, that’s an interesting subversion of the walk of shame.” It didn’t even cross our minds that it was a subversion of anything because it is just genuinely what we authentically feel, the day after we have sex—totally invincible.
Same thing goes for the commitment thing. It is possibly just more true to my own experience, or maybe to where I think Jessie as a character has progressed. She’s this impulsive, confident, slightly wild, very independent character. It’s a very natural thing for her to be scared of committing to something because it feels as if it’s a compromise of aspects of her life, or aspects of her personality. She’s at an age where the word compromise is a bad word as opposed to quite an integral part of any relationship. It was never an intentional subversion, but it is nice to play a character that is a woman who is the one scared of commitment. You don’t see that much on screen. The trope of a lovesick woman in a rom-com who just can’t get a boyfriend, and just wants to get married and settle down and all that shit truly feels not very modern.
I read that one of the fights Jessie and Tom have this season after he calls her “kooky” was inspired by the time a friend used that word to describe your Hinge profile. What is it about that word that rubs you the wrong way?
Well, it was Emma Sidi who plays Kate who called it kooky! She looked at it, and she was like, “You cannot put this out there.” There were videos of me eating a nectarine. I often tried to lure men from there to the Boggle app to then play me on Boggle. That whole scene is dedicated to all of the girls out there who have interesting personalities or hobbies and are immediately sort of described as “quirky” and “kooky.”
You truly do not hear men described as quirky or kooky. It’s done with such a tinge of condescension or derision with women. Often people who are described as quirky or kooky, when you actually look at them, they’re just interesting women who are into something that’s perhaps unexpected. I experienced that myself, and that was basically me just making a point within the script to make sure no one said that in reviews of the show; “quirky Jessie, kooky Jessie.” I got that so much in stand up, descriptions of being quirky or kooky, that very adorkable Zooey Deschanel energy. The mid-2000s was a tough time for the gals.
I saw someone say on Twitter the other day that we need to bring back rom-coms with women with curly hair. I made a reference to that in a standup show I did years ago called Sassy Best Friend, which was about the fact that I’d always only be cast as the sassy best friend character in a rom-com because of my confusing ethnicity and curly hair.
In rom-coms, and even outside of rom-coms, female characters are so isolated either because they have no friends or because they have bad ones. That’s so unrealistic because any woman will tell you her friends are essential to her life. What kinds of conversations did you and Alice have about portraying Jessie’s friendship with Kate because she’s the other significant relationship in her life.
I think it’s the awareness of even, as I said, that standup show that I did about the trope of the sassy best friend. I’m constantly trying to avoid that for Kate’s character. This person shouldn’t just be an endless tool of exposition. She should have depth. Because as you say, she’s the other very important, if not more important, relationship in Jessie’s life. I would say more important, because they’ve known each other for far more years than she and Tom have known each other. It helps that me, Emma, and Alice are all incredibly tight-knit. They’re my two best friends in real life as well.
It was also important to write a female friendship that exists in this genre where Kate doesn’t let Jessie off the hook about stuff. It’s unconditional love, but she’s also not there to support Jessie blindly through stuff. I fight more with my best friends than any other friendships because there’s so much love there. I love that most of the time Kate and Jessie are yelling at each other and being bossy with each other. That’s what our friendship is actually like, there’s just so much love, but also you do slap your best friend sometimes.
It reminds me of that Oprah gif: “She is the mother I never had, the sister everybody would want, the friend that everybody deserves. I don’t know a better person.” Kate’s there to give her real talk or indulge her flights of fancy, and she’s just always nurturing her in a way that is indicative of what that relationship means to both of them.
Totally! Nurturing someone is love and it’s also tough love as well. I love the constant oscillation between those two. That’s how I describe my relationship with Emma. She’ll be telling me, “Go and snog that boy.” And then also being like, “Don’t text him back.” You never know what she’s going to say. I think the ability to give tough love is the real sign of a true blue friendship.
Your grandmother makes a surprise appearance via a phone call. How did you convince her to voice Jessie’s grandmother? And what does she think of the show?
She loves the show. I mean, I named my character after her. And she was so down for it. Basically, on the day it was Alice improvising half of the phone call so when we were in the edit, I rang her up, and I was like, “There’s this bit that we need a voice for if you’re okay with doing it.” I recorded her doing some improv around showing me the new concrete that’s been laid in her back garden, which is based on the actual conversation we’ve had once where she was showing me all the concrete. There was an element of like, “Does she think I’m taking the piss out of her?” I hope she doesn’t think I’m taking the piss out of her. My nan is the best. She’d do anything to help me out, from when I did stand up to now. I did a film shoot once and she sent me to the film shoot with cakes and pavlovas and smoked fish. I had to explain to her that they already have catering. And she’s like, “What? No, I’ve made a lemon drizzle cake, just take it to work.” She’s just the best, most kind-hearted person, and I think she did a really good job. I just said, “Improvise on the concrete.” And she gave me about two minutes.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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