Although HBO Max’s “Starstruck” is a charming romantic comedy, Rose Matafeo, its creator, co-writer and star, hadn’t originally intended it to be such a thing. The comedian, who is from New Zealand and now lives in London, simply believed that every good movie or TV show should feature a love story, whether romantic or not.
“I really 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 his north London neighborhood. “I was like, ‘I thought it was just a comedy with me in it.’ Every story must have a love story [and] I think that’s just more my concern with it. That’s the subconscious value of writing – it probably seeps through.
Matafeo wrote the first season with Alice Snedden before the pandemic, but COVID delayed its production, so the pair soon began writing a second set of episodes. Once they were finally able to shoot in fall 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 a top movie star named Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel).
High jinks ensue, as they do in all good rom-coms, and the initial season left Jessie to decide whether to return home to New Zealand or stay in London with Tom. Filming this story with the cast on location in London helped Matafeo and Snedden figure out where Season 2 should go.
“Once you start doing the show, the huge asset as writers is being on set,” Matafeo recalled. “When you see the shape the show takes – because there are so many variables beyond the script – we [realized] those scripts didn’t fit the world we were creating: “We have to rewrite it.” And I’m so glad we did. I like the second series much more than the original scripts.
In Season 2, Jessie struggles to have a real relationship with Tom, who is offered the opportunity to star in a big movie and deals with tensions in his family. Meanwhile, Jessie’s toxic ex-boyfriend Ben lurks in the background. In the spirit of all good romantic comedies, the season ends with a grand romantic gesture with deliberate gender references throughout the episodes – including Matafeo turning “being Alan Rickman-ed” into a verb when Tom gives Jessie a Joni Mitchell CD (a call to “Love Actually”) — but the finale wasn’t meant to evoke that memorable lake moment from “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” despite how it looked.
“A lot of it was accidental,” says Matafeo. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, what a great reference,’ and I go, ‘Oh…yeah.’ It’s so funny how you put something out in the world and how it gets taken and absorbed and obsessed with. [season], the end came because we were originally going to do an airplane thing and couldn’t afford it. It’s really the result of budget 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 we thought, ‘And a lake?’
While many viewers may assume that Jessie is designed as an avatar for Matafeo herself, the character was written to be exactly that – a character. Jessie is likeable and often hilarious, but she also makes questionable choices and generally struggles to figure out her life. This feeling of uncertainty and mess is interesting for Matafeo, who says she feels “very defensive” towards Jessie and her decisions.
“I think she’s a real character. And, yeah, maybe some of the ways she would mess up I would too. Nothing is autobiographical, but her attitude towards the storylines she’s in [and] her reactions to the often exacerbated situations she finds herself in are probably influenced by my own reactions to those things. It’s almost like a role-playing game.
At this point, Matafeo has not determined whether there will be a third season of “Starstruck.” She recently returned to live-action stand-up comedy, where she got her start, and she’s taking some time off this summer to reflect on her career path. But the actress is also aware of the love for the show and hopes to find Jessie’s next chapter.
“I always try to explore that because I don’t really know. It was so funny to see the reaction to the first [season] and everyone says, “What a perfect ending, with no notes.” Never continue the story. But we did. I’m such a fan of ‘Before Sunrise’, the trilogy vibe of it [film series]. It’s always difficult to know with television too when things should stop. For me, it’s really about whether or not there’s a story to tell.