[Warning: The following contains light spoilers for Season 2 of Starstruck.]
Rose Matafeo has put years into Starstruck, the irresistible rom-com series she created, co-writes, and stars in. But when she hypes it up, she plays it cool. "It's kind of good," Matafeo told TV Guide shortly before the stateside debut of Season 2. "You know what? It's short. Not a huge commitment."
Starstruck's breezy, bite-size seasons are just one of its pleasures, but it's fitting that Matafeo would be in tune with the fear of commitment. It's the focus of the show's second season, out now on HBO Max: a fresh spin on a romantic comedy sequel that's buzzing with the anxiety of a new relationship. The first season followed Matafeo's Jessie as she repeatedly crossed paths with and reluctantly fell for Tom (Nikesh Patel), a famous actor she'd hooked up with on New Year's Eve. Season 2 picks up in the aftermath of Jessie's decision to stay in London to be with him rather than fly home to New Zealand, her grand romantic gesture giving way to panic as reality sets in.
Matafeo, who wrote this season with Alice Snedden and Nic Sampson, grounds the characters in complexities that make them feel real while still injecting the story with the thrill of classic romantic films. For inspiration, the New Zealand actress and comedian looked to movies about couples who bicker but still turn each other on, like the 1934 mystery The Thin Man, the 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday (Season 2 features a His Girl Friday wink that she calls "the nerdiest Easter Egg I've ever had"), and the newlyweds of the 1967 romp Barefoot in the Park. Matafeo pointed to a scene in Season 2 featuring a massive argument over what turns out to be a game of Bananagrams: "That sort of energy of a new relationship, I love."
In advance of the HBO Max premiere of Starstruck Season 2, Matafeo spoke to TV Guide about harnessing that new-relationship energy for Tom and Jessie. She also weighed in on the pleasures of writing and playing a woman with real flaws and broke down just how famous Tom really is.
Season 2 is essentially what happens after the end of a rom-com. What excited you about writing that?
Rose Matafeo: Sequels to rom-coms are notoriously tricky, because the whole nature of a rom-com is that you end on some sort of idyllic, aspirational cliffhanger ending, where you fill in the blanks of they lived happily ever after. So it was a very unique challenge to figure out what to do after what we did at the end of Series 1 — it could have totally ended there. And we just decided to run toward what the funniest thing was to us, and the most interesting, which is like, yeah, that's a mad decision! People in rom-coms make stupid decisions out of love, and the actual fallout from those decisions is a really interesting world to live in. Season 2 feels like a turbo version of the first, where [Season 1] was a whole year and then [in Season 2] it's just two months of Jessie having a complete, absolute meltdown over the fact that she just made this massive decision on a whim, on a true whim.
This season gets into the difference between the idea of being in love and the reality of it, which is something you talked about in your stand-up special Horndog. What is it about that idea that interests you?
Matafeo: What's so funny is that rom-coms rarely are about actual relationships. They're always about people on the precipice of it, or the amazing moments before or leading up to a relationship. But relationships are incredibly difficult. So it was fun to explore what the very early stages of a relationship are like, actually. It turns out it's a lot of miscommunication and people unwilling to compromise. That was really fun for Jessie's character, because she goes through a bit of a self-realization thing. She definitely is intoxicated by the idea of love, or falling in love, and then the actual being-in-love bit is pretty hard, and she has to humble herself a bit.
There's a lot that Jessie needs to work on in relationships, but what I love is that it's written like a real flaw, and not like it's just a joke that this woman is a mess. Tell me about your approach to writing her in a way that feels real, even though she's in this rom-com genre that's so full of conventions.
Matafeo: Having co-writers like Alice Snedden and Nic Sampson, who I know very well and who know me very well — we've known each other for years — is so helpful in that. Because we care so much about these characters and writing characters who have consistency in their decision making. We'd often write something and go, "That joke doesn't make sense for that person, because they would never say that," or, "They wouldn't do that because they're not that kind of person." That's really helpful when it comes to creating a genuinely flawed character that is also lovable. I think that's quite a cool thing about the show, that all of these characters have flaws but you still like them, because that's how the world works. You have friends who are terribly f---ed up, and they're still your best friends in the world.
In rom-coms, often female characters are expected to be the moral compass of something. Any time they do something unlikable, people go, "Don't write that. You can't make the lead character unlikable!" And it's cool to be able to do that. I was watching Little Women the other day, the '94 version, and I was like, Jo is a nightmare! She's great!
I think it also helps that for Jessie, when she makes a mistake there are real consequences.
Matafeo: She's held accountable, yeah. Even if she doesn't want to be.
In terms of the way her relationship with Tom is written, his fame just magnifies both of their insecurities. Why is that the angle of fame that you wanted to focus on?
Matafeo: It's become quite clear that myself and Alice, we're really interested in the topic of fame. We met over doing a podcast about celebrity crushes, and we're very well versed in the world of pop culture in that sense. Being from a place like New Zealand, we don't deal with the same level of fame or celebrity as in the States, or even in the U.K. We find it slightly uncomfortable and weird and not really aspirational. We see the level of fame Tom experiences as kind of sh--ty and a real roadblock in his life, and his personal life in particular. It's always funny; it always feels like we're going, "Celebrities are humans too," but it is fun to play with the human side of people in that profession.
We love being able to write a character who is so unimpressed with fame, and I think that's always such a funny thing to play with, to see it as a genuine negative. Jessie is not impressed with it at all. Fame being the biggest obstacle with a relationship has been done in other things, and I find it slightly uninteresting, particularly when you're writing a story about people and relationships. There's only so far you can go being like, "He has a press event and he can't make the date. Isn't that sad?" You're like, "That's boring. Let's make it that he's f---ing insecure and he calls her kooky." That's what I want out of a rom-com.
How do you think about how famous Tom is? Is that something you track throughout the show, where you're thinking, "Now he's more famous than he was two episodes ago"?
Matafeo: It's an interesting thing, this show going to America. A lot of people are like, "Wait, how famous is he? This is bullsh--. He met her at a pub?" And it's very funny, because in the U.K. that does happen. It's legit inspired by situations where I've heard that happening with mega-stars. They're just weirdly more accessible. The culture here is different. We do often, though, talk about what level of fame he's at. The nature of the level of actor Tom is at is that it's quite up and down. You get a big role in something and you're everywhere, and then suddenly you're not in stuff as much. So he's at that comfortable level of — it's almost like he's got the nature of Matt Damon. It's like how Matt Damon was so boring that no one ever took paparazzi photos of him.
I read that you pulled the weed brownie story in Season 1 from your life. Was there anything this season that was pulled from your life in a similar way?
Matafeo: The cold open where she reads the pregnancy test and thinks it's positive and then she's read it wrong — beat for beat it happened to me. It was so ridiculous. I completely read it wrong, had an absolute meltdown, went, "I don't know what I'm gonna do. I'm f---ing pregnant. I'm pregnant," burst into tears, and checked it, and I was like, "Oh yeah, I read it wrong." And the shift was immediate. I was like, "Oh, fine, great." That was fun to re-create.
I haven't read any word on Season 3.
Matafeo: Nor have I.
Is that something you're open to? Are you thinking about it?
Matafeo: I really have no idea. If the opportunity and the idea presents itself, then definitely maybe, but I think I'm just trying to decompress from breaking the second series. It's such a lengthy process, and I feel like it's all-consuming because I care about it so much, and you put so much of yourself into it, so it's always a massive undertaking.
What was the timeline for the first two seasons? Were you working on Season 2 already when Season 1 came out?
Matafeo: We started shooting Series 2 the day after the first series came out.
Have you processed yet how much the show has taken off?
Matafeo: A bit, but also it's weird because it came out in lockdown. I've done all of the press in lockdown. We could never do screenings because COVID was always popping up when it was coming out. So in a way I have, and then in a way I haven't. It's been a weird, surreal thing. I certainly did not expect as many people to have watched it, which is very cool. Maybe I should just never do anything ever again.
Starstruck Season 2 is now streaming on HBO Max.