If you’ve seen Rose Matafeo’s Edinburgh Comedy Award–winning stand-up special Horndog, you know she has a lot of opinions on dating and pop culture, like how love crystalizes inside your body like a Horcrux and why Love Island would be better if contestants were solving a murder like in Clue. Matafeo, who started doing stand-up in her native New Zealand at the age of 15, is a natural performer with the ability to make audiences question whether what they’re seeing is part of her act or a genuine emotional response. As someone who believes the true definition of horniness is “putting 100 percent into something that’s not worth it,” Matafeo’s comedy invites everyone to fully give themselves over to their obsessions, even at the risk of heartbreak. Now, Matafeo has channeled her own obsessions into Starstruck, an HBO Max romantic-comedy series and one of the most delightful new shows of the year.
Created by, co-written by, and starring the 29-year-old Matafeo, Starstruck follows Jessie, a Kiwi expat happily scraping by in London when she realizes that the hunky guy she’s just had a one-night stand with is actually a major movie star, Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel). Though the series is most often compared to Notting Hill, rom-com lover and film nerd Matafeo draws from a range of influences, blending elements of screwball comedies, Steve Martin and Albert Brooks flicks from the ’80s and ’90s, and rom-com classics like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Moonstruck, and When Harry Met Sally to create her wholly original and completely charming new series.
The six-episode first season delivers everything rom-com fans have come to expect — a memorable meet-cute (in a nightclub bathroom, of all places), snappy banter, and undeniable chemistry between its two leads. But in Starstruck, there are no external obstacles keeping Tom and Jessie apart, like a secret bet or one of them putting the other out of business. Instead, Jessie and Tom’s deep-rooted emotional hang-ups lead to a series of misunderstandings that leave them both guarded and hesitant to commit, all while their shared sense of biting humor continues to draw them deeper into love.
Matafeo took a break from working on Starstruck’s second season to talk with Vulture about crafting the perfect rom-com love interest, why she loves writing about love, and her hopes for a new kind of rom-com renaissance.
Horndog was focused a lot on love, sex, and pop culture, and these same themes are reconfigured and explored in a new way Starstruck. What do you think keeps drawing you to these topics in your work?
Laziness. [Laughs.] Pure laziness. And I can’t run from my own personality. It’s been a really interesting thing — getting older, living through your twenties, trying to experiment with who you are, what other kinds of people you could be, what other kinds of things you could be into. And then coming back to nearly being 30 and realizing that I’m just basically a nerd and I never will escape that. So I think I keep revisiting those things because those are the things I’m obsessed with, and I’m a slightly obsessive person. I’m a child of the ’90s; pop culture is very much a part of my life. It’s nice being able to do something like Starstruck, where you feel like you’re adding to pop culture rather than talking about it and being quite reflective about it.
When you were making Starstruck, what rom-com traditions did you want to honor and what were you excited to do differently?
I think annoyingly the meet-cute thing is always gonna be a huge part of rom-com tradition, and I love it. It’s the best part. That and the first kiss or the first fight or anything like that. There are so many of those elements that I think if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. I think good tension and good banter is such a huge thing. Having two characters who genuinely have chemistry but also are kind of mean to each other sometimes in an exciting way. Maybe I’m showing my cards too much with how I am with relationships, but when someone can give you shit, you’re like, “Holy crap, that’s the sexiest thing.”
It was just a pleasure trying to write two characters who are genuinely funny. Back in the day, in rom-coms in the ’40s and stuff, female characters were allowed to have a lot of the good lines, and then somehow [that opportunity] just disappeared. There are amazingly charming female leads of rom-com — and to be fair they do have good lines — but then men tended to take those lines and women became funny in a physical way, kind of like, “Oh my God, I’m falling over all the time.” It was really nice to write two characters who were just funny, and a female character or woman who was unashamedly funnier than the guy. That’s no disrespect to Tom or Nikesh in any way, but it’s kind of ridiculous that that’s not as common as you think.
I tend to have low expectations for men in rom-coms, but I knew I was all in on Tom the morning after they first slept together when he not only appreciated Jessie’s humor, but then tried to one-up her.
You know what’s so fun is how many times it felt sick to write, “Tom laughs.” Like, “Tom laughs at Jessie.” Then you realize, “Damn, I never see a guy laugh at a girl in a rom-com.” It’s always like, “You’re ridiculous,” or like, “Oh you.” And I think it feels sick to write a character having to laugh at your jokes, particularly when you’re in the show, but it works. It also works because Nikesh is so wonderful at that and he holds his own. And honestly, it really takes a lot and it really takes a really amazing performer to be able to take a character like that, not make them a dick and to genuinely be warm. I just don’t know why straight men don’t understand that the hottest thing you can do is laugh at a woman. It’s just so easy. Honestly, fake it. It’s genuinely the best thing you can do.
I love that after Jessie sleeps with Tom, she doesn’t become fixated on him and just continues on with her life as usual. What was your approach to setting up the dynamic between these characters?
It wasn’t until we were doing some of the U.S. press for it and they were like, “Oh, it’s nice because the title’s ironic.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, it is.” It genuinely did not occur to me. [The dynamic] comes from what type of character Jessie is. She’s confident and knows herself. She’s happy being single in a city and she’s happy with her position in life. She’s not thrown by an encounter with a guy like that. If anything, he’s chasing her, which is quite awesome and quite nice to see and definitely unexpected. I love it because if anything, his fame is a turnoff for her. She’s not impressed by it. And the fact that she’s not impressed by it is what attracts Tom to her as well, and what makes them orbit each other for this year.
It’s so rare to see interracial couples onscreen where one of them isn’t white. Was that something you were considerate of when casting Tom?
With this, we didn’t intentionally go in to cast someone of any race, really, of any background. We were just casting the person who was the best for the role, and it just so happened that Nikesh was our guy. For it to organically happen like that, it feels like a really positive step forward in that it feels a little less box tick-y, if that makes sense. I say that with also an appreciation for the fact that you do have to put in effort to get diversity onscreen and behind the camera, as well. So there are elements of it where it’s like yes, you do have to consider your casting, consider who you’re putting on, and regroup from that. It’s also something that’s not necessarily talked about in the show. And I think sometimes when you are not white, you have this feeling that you have to talk about it. And it becomes part of your character and it becomes part of the story. And that was something really nice about this, which is it’s just two people falling in love. And that’s the kind of progress that you should see on television, where it’s not necessarily — and it can be, because identity is a huge part of character — but it’s not necessarily a part of their love story.
I’m a little bit obsessed with the party game the characters play where they have to guess which celebrity is coming to dinner based on their height, and I saw you actually used to keep a chart of your height compared to celebrities.
I did. Particularly with women who are quite tall. Nicole Kidman, taller than me. I really wanna meet her one day to see how tall she is compared to me. Cameron Diaz, I think slightly shorter. A lot of men who were surprisingly shorter than me, which was kind of sad. But you know, I love my short kings. They still deserve it. Rick Moranis, a lot shorter. Steve Martin, kind of maybe the same height. I’ve got to revisit it. I’ve got to make the chart up again.
You’re already working on season two, and most rom-coms end where this first season does. What’s it been like figuring out the next chapter of Jessie and Tom’s relationship?
It’s very difficult to write a sequel to a rom-com, I will say that. Particularly when you’ve kind of written this story that neatly ties up in a way. But it’s nice because I feel like a lot of people want to see what happens beyond the will-they, won’t-they story. What’s great is that no matter what it is, you’re missing characters and you kind of want to see what all of these characters we built up in [season] one, where they get to. It’s almost like writing fan-fiction of your own thing.
I feel like between this, Feel Good, and High Fidelity, we’re experiencing a renaissance of rom-coms with really unique tones and perspectives. What do you think about where the genre stands and the ways it’s evolving?
I think love stories or rom-coms were such a deeply white, heteronormative genre throughout all of the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s. And I think people are just discovering that people other than two white people — a white man and a white woman — do fall in love. And now, to see shows and work that reflects such a wider group of people of sexualities, of race, of gender, of everything, I think it’s just exciting. And it’s exciting to see those things made by people as well. I think that’s a big, big thing. People writing and directing and actually creating that content themselves rather than being written for is the next step. I hope a new regenerated form of the rom-com which is far more inclusive actually has a bit of a renaissance now because I wanna see them. I wanna fucking see them!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.