Although HBO Max’s “Starstruck” is a charming romantic comedy, Rose Matafeo, its creator, co-writer and star, didn’t initially intend it to be any such thing. The comedian, who hails from New Zealand and now lives in London, simply felt that every good film or TV show should feature a love story, whether it’s romantic or not.
“I genuinely didn’t realize it until [the series] came out and everyone was like, ‘Check out this rom-com,’” Matafeo says with a laugh at a café in her north London neighborhood. “I was like, ‘I thought it was just a comedy with me in it.’ Every story has to have a love story [and] I think it’s just more my preoccupation with that. That’s the subconscious value in writing — it probably seeps in.”
Matafeo wrote the first season with Alice Snedden ahead of the pandemic, but COVID delayed its production, so the pair quickly began writing a second set of episodes. Once they were finally able to shoot in the fall of 2020, the writers realized they would need to rework Season 2. The first season premiered in April 2021, introducing hapless Londoner Jessie (Matafeo), who has a one-night stand with a man who turns out to be an A-list movie star named Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel).
High jinks ensue, as they do in all good rom-coms, and the initial season left Jessie deciding whether to return home to New Zealand or stay in London with Tom. Filming that storyline with the cast on location in London helped Matafeo and Snedden understand where Season 2 should go.
“Once you start making the show, the huge asset as writers is to be on set,” Matafeo reflects. “When you see what shape the show is taking — because there are so many variables beyond the script— we [realized] these scripts didn’t fit within the world that we were making: ‘We have to rewrite it.’ And I’m so glad we did. I like the second series a lot more than what the original scripts were.”
In Season 2, Jessie struggles with being in a real relationship with Tom, who is offered an opportunity to star in a big movie and deals with tension in his family. Meanwhile, Jessie’s toxic ex-boyfriend, Ben, is lurking in the background. In the spirit of all good romantic comedies, the season ends with a grand romantic gesture with purposeful genre references throughout the episodes — including Matafeo making “being Alan Rickman-ed” into a verb when Tom gives Jessie a Joni Mitchell CD (a call-out to “Love Actually”) — but the finale wasn’t intended to evoke that memorable lake moment from “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” despite how it looks.
“So much of it was accidental,” Matafeo says. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, what a great reference’ and I go, ‘Oh … yeah.’ It’s so funny how you put something out into the world and how it’s taken and absorbed and obsessed over. In the first [season], the ending came out of the fact that we were originally going to do a plane thing and we couldn’t afford that. It really came out of budgetary constraints, and [that’s where] I think creativity flourishes. And with the lake scene, we wanted to do it in the canals and they’re very, very polluted. It was just super hard to orchestrate. So then we were like, ‘What about a lake?’”
While many viewers may assume that Jessie is intended as an avatar for Matafeo herself, the character was written to be exactly that — a character. Jessie is likable and often hilarious, but she also makes some questionable choices and generally struggles to figure out her life. That sense of uncertainty and messiness is interesting for Matafeo, who says she feels “very defensive” of Jessie and her decisions.
“I think she’s a really real character. And, yes, maybe some of the ways in which she messes up I would as well. Nothing’s autobiographical, but her attitude towards the scenarios she finds herself in [and] her reactions to the often heightened situations she finds herself in are probably influenced by my own reactions to those things. It’s almost like roleplaying.”
At this point, Matafeo hasn’t determined whether there will be a third season of “Starstruck.” She’s recently returned to live stand-up comedy, where she got her start, and she’s taking some time this summer to consider how her career will move forward. But the actress is also aware of the love for the series and hopes to find Jessie’s next chapter.
“I’m still trying to explore that because I don’t really know. It was so funny seeing the reaction to the first [season] and everyone’s like, ‘What a perfect end, no notes. Never continue the story.’ But we did. I’m such a fan of ‘Before Sunrise,’ the trilogy vibe of that [film series]. It’s always hard to know with TV, as well, when things should stop. For me, it really comes down to whether or not there is a story there to tell.”
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