How Rose Matafeo Shaped the Romance in ‘Starstruck’

LONDON — For Rose Matafeo, there’s just something about a classic love story. Particularly movies from Hollywood’s golden age, featuring heartthrobs with trans-Atlantic accents, witty female leads and zero cynicism.

It follows, then, that there’s an air of midcentury romanticism to “Starstruck,” the HBO Max show Matafeo created and stars in. “I totally don’t live in reality, I live in fantasy, so it’s quite natural for me to make a thing that was not realistic,” Matafeo, 30, said in a recent video call.

“Starstruck” explores the fraught and joyfully improbable love story of Jessie (Matafeo), a New Zealander in her twenties struggling to make a life for herself in London, and Tom (Nikesh Patel), a famous British actor. The second season — now streaming — picks up where the first left off, with Jessie having abandoned her plans to move back to New Zealand, and the pair embarking on an official relationship.

Matafeo, who co-wrote episodes with Alice Snedden and Nic Sampson, wanted “Starstruck” to be a “combination of wish fulfillment, fantasy stuff and also realistic dialogue.” In a video call, she discussed the inspirations behind that medley. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

When Matafeo watched Bob Fosse’s “Sweet Charity” in the lead up to writing “Starstruck,” she was taken by its central character, Charity (played by Shirley MacLaine). At the heart of the film is Charity’s desire for love, however much she is spurned in her pursuit of it. Matafeo saw some of herself in her character, “this hopelessly romantic person who will still believe in love for the rest of her life, even if all of her experiences of love are all so negative,” she said.

When creating Jessie, Matafeo was also inspired by Charity’s joy and confidence. There is a wildness to Jessie: In one episode we see her dancing through the streets after a one-night stand, and in another, she wades into a pond in an ill-considered romantic gesture. Jessie is “unembarrassed to be in love and unembarrassed to be over the top, and putting 100 percent into things,” Matafeo said. “I think that’s definitely an inspiration from ‘Sweet Charity.’”

Neil Simon’s 1963 play “Barefoot in the Park” not only influenced the dialogue in “Starstruck,” with Matafeo emulating the play’s naturalistic wit, but also the dynamic between Tom and Jessie.

The play, which Simon later adapted into a 1967 film starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, tells the story of Corie and Paul, a newlywed couple who move into their first apartment in New York City. The pair have different temperaments: Corie is a lovable “nightmare” with “zero chill,” said Matafeo, while Paul is more strait-laced with dry humor. Jessie and Tom fit into this odd couple mold, with Jessie’s occasional chaos and frequent eccentricity balanced by Tom’s steadiness from her. The pair “are very different and come from very different worlds,” Matafeo said. “I love seeing characters that are electric and keep each other alive.”

Before writing “Starstruck,” Matafeo read the screenplays of several romantic films, among them “LA Story,” “Before Sunrise” and Nora Ephron’s 1989 comedy “When Harry Met Sally.” The latter influenced how Matafeo approached her writing her show.

In Ephron’s script, “so much of the character and the story is revealed in dialogue rather than the big print,” Matafeo said. She liked that the screenplay wasn’t overly didactic about the emotions the performers were to portray. In keeping her own scripts sparse, Matafeo said she wanted to leave room for the actors to bring their own approach. “Though I am there in person being like ‘oh why are you doing it that way’,” she said, laughing.

When we meet Jessie in the first season, she is at ease with being single. Matafeo was inspired in this regard by two Asian shows about food. First, “Wakako-zake,” a Japanese anime, manga and live action series that follows the gastronomic adventures of Wakako, a 26-year-old office worker. Each episode ends with her eating alone at a different restaurant. And “The Cravings,” a South Korean drama about Jae-young, a newly-single woman in her 30s and the food she eats and cooks as she works through her breakup.

“It’s really just a joyous thing seeing women living alone and liking it and liking themselves, enjoying solitude,” Matafeo said. “That was an important part of Jessie’s character of her.”

South Korean television also influenced Matafeo when it came to the pacing of “Starstruck.” The tension of a burgeoning romance is often at the center of K-dramas, as the shows are called, and this is echoed in the slow unfurling of Tom and Jessie’s romance. “It’s as much about what characters aren’t doing in those tense spaces in between bouts of romantic gestures that I find very hot,” Matafeo said.

The screwball comedy “His Girl Friday,” starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, had a direct influence on aspects of Season Two’s plot. Specifically, the complications posed by an ex-boyfriend who is a terrible person, but to whom the female character will always be a little bit attracted.

In the 1940 classic, the newspaper editor Walter (Grant) is displeased to learn that his ex-wife Hildy (Russell) plans to remarry, so he convinces her to report one last story. In a similar vein, Tom and Jessie’s relationship is jeopardized by the re-emergence of Ben, Jessie’s ex-boyfriend of hers. Matafeo included a tribute to the film in the fifth episode, where a parallel scene from “His Girl Friday” plays in the background when Ben visits Jessie at her movie theater job de ella to offer her part-time work de ella.

“His Girl Friday” is also another influence on the dynamic between Tom and Jessie. Both Grant and Russell’s characters “give as good as they get,” said Matafeo, but ultimately Russell is funnier — as Jessie is in her relationship with Tom. “There’s something sexy about having a man laugh at a woman’s joke, and how weird that feels in rom-coms and also in real life,” Matafeo said. “I went on a date recently and the guy laughed at me and I was like, well I want to marry you.”

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