Rose Matafeo is in her bed in London when she answers my Zoom call. “You like this crazy angle?” she says breezily in her Auckland accent, the screen flooded with her impressively bouncy curls. Matafeo’s effortlessly curly hair becomes something of a signature look on Starstruck, the six-part BBC romantic comedy series she created and starred in. In the series, which she cowrote with best friend Alice Snedden, Matafeo plays Jessie—a floundering 28-year-old movie house employee spinning her wheels in London who has a one-night stand with Tom, a Tom Cruise–esque action-film star played by British Indian actor Nikesh Patel. In short, Starstruck is an inverse Notting Hill—this time, famous man falls for everyday girl. And much like that movie, Matafeo’s show has critics swooning. The series currently has 100% critic and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes, with Vanity Fair’s Cassie da Costa praising its “elusive, ineffable charm.”
Matafeo’s lying down because she’s just finished a long day of shooting the second season of Starstruck, which was renewed by HBO Max before it even debuted on the streaming platform. “They’re announcing it properly next week, but I obviously already just posted a photo on Instagram,” she says. That day they’d been shooting in a London park and drawing some interested onlookers. “I want to get on Deux Moi. That’s the fucking thing,” says Matafeo, before going on a comedic tear about what she does and does not want to see on the infamous gossip Instagram. “I don’t want to fucking see Ramona [Singer] without her mask again. I want to see [Starstruck] filming. I want to see Succession pics.”
Matafeo has never had trouble forming an opinion. A self-described nerd who never played sports, the New Zealand native discovered she liked comedy at the age of 15, choosing to spend her two-week school vacation taking comedy classes. She stuck with the discipline through her teens and “accidentally kept doing it” in her 20s, touring in New Zealand and Australia before landing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “The years where I could have gotten an actual skill or, like, a degree or anything like that sort of flew by, and then I arrived to my late 20s going, Well, I’m committed to this now, so I should try and make it work.”
You could say it’s worked out pretty well. In 2018, Matafeo won the prestigious comedy award for best show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, making her the first person of color to do so for a solo show. (Matafeo is Samoan on her father’s side.) The show, Horndog, dives headfirst into her teenage obsessions with everything from K-Pop to her well-documented lust for Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand—that obsessive, passionate love that’s the hallmark of teenage girlhood. In the special, Matafeo manages to pop off an Armie Hammer joke that’s eerily prescient of the actor’s recent scandal: “I don’t even like Armie Hammer, but I want to both fuck him and eat him.” Which begs the question: what did Rose Matafeo know, and when did she know it?” “Oh my fucking God. When it got released in the U.K I was like, ‘we have to cut that,’” she recalls, somewhat amazed. “I tried to choose the most innocuous, bland, beige fucking actor [for the joke]. It’s so funny that it proved the point: How can we trust men at a time like this?”
The same question is central to Starstruck. Over the course of the series, we watch as Matafeo’s hapless Jessie tries to decide whether she will or won’t with Patel’s uber-famous Tom. “Starstruck is my slight obsession with love and romance,” says Matafeo. “I feel like a romantic person who enjoys just the topic of love. [Love is] a galvanizing and compelling story to watch and force to be reckoned with.”
Matafeo calls Starstruck a “six-part romantic comedy,” and found inspiration in several of the genre’s standard-bearers: Notting Hill, Moonstruck, and When Harry Met Sally, specifically the latter’s jazzy score. One romantic comedy, however, holds a particular place in Matafeo’s heart. “Bridget Jones[‘s Diary] is just, I think, one of the best films ever made,” she says, with complete conviction. “And I watched it every week when I was 17 years old. It was an obsession. It was really bad. I know that movie like the back of my hand.”
While she reveres romantic comedies of yore, Matafeo intentionally tried to break the mold with Starstruck. Before Horndog, she had a standup show called “Sexy Best Friend”—based on the premise that if she were to be cast in a romantic comedy, that’s the part she’d most likely play. “I am ethnically ambiguous, and I’ve got curly hair, and I am the one who’ll say something like ‘sexy’ and then never be heard of again,” she jokes. (In Starstruck, Jessie’s sidekick is played by Emma Sidi, who also happens to be one of Matafeo’s flatmates and IRL best friends.) In the show, she sang a version of Rihanna’s “Work” that replaced the titular word with “white” as images of romcom ingenues like Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts were projected onto screens behind her.