Matafeo, 30, is acutely aware that other comedians her age got their start on YouTube, or Twitter, even TikTok, performing for unseen audiences from the comfort of their homes. “I was, like, this strange, vaudevillian child,” she says. But on nights when she wasn’t performing sets she wrote in history class, Matafeo watched one of the same three movies every night before bed: “The Holiday,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “It’s Complicated.” “I was this romance-starved Pisces nerd at an all-girls school,” she says. “I was, like, ready for love.”
“Starstruck,” the BBC Three-HBO Max series Matafeo created and stars in, is now in its second season and precisely the show you’d expect, even hope, a teenager like Matafeo would grow up to write. The Auckland native plays Jessie, a charming, self-centered, late-20s New Zealand slacker living in London who drunkenly hooks up with and is then courted by international movie star Tom Kapoor. “Starstruck” is uniquely informed by Matafeo’s big-hearted, waggish, quietly rebellious worldview, and it’s one of the best, most creative romantic comedies to pop onto the small screen in years — though Matafeo didn’t recognize it as an entry in the genre until it began airing. Her mission de ella, she says, was to make a show about a “dark-timeline and also a wish-fulfillment version” of herself, and for it to be funny. “It was only after that I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s a love story,’” she says. “Because that’s how worried I am with love.”
“What’s becoming clear,” she adds through a mouthful of asparagus salad, “is that I live in a romantic comedy.”
“Starstruck” can be understood as both an homage to the classics and a subversion of the traditional rom-com formula: Matafeo downplays romantic comedies’ inherent cheesiness by injecting sly, witty realism as well as a hefty dose of autobiography, but she leans all the way into the genre’s famously rewarding emotional payoffs. While the first season ends with the timeless grand gesture that is the last-moment decision not to board the plane, the second season opens with the lesser-seen real-time consequences: Missing luggage. A return home to an off-guard, in flagrante roommate. A wincing apology over the phone to the parent who purchased the plane ticket. An episode that looks as if it could wrap up a will-they-won’t-they storyline with a good old Christmastime mistletoe resolution instead takes a detour into an accidental weed-brownie misadventure. A “surprise” run-in cutely orchestrated by Tom nearly gets derailed when Jessie tells him flatly outside her front door that he can’t come in for a tryst, as she’s gotten her period earlier. (Tom takes it in stride, deadpanning one of history’s great period jokes — “For the first time?” — before they proceed inside.)
The central relationship of “Starstruck” is itself a welcome shake-up of the traditional romantic-comedy couple. Matafeo, who’s half-Samoan and nearly 6 feet tall, has said before that people who look like her are more often seen at the margins of romantic comedies, cast as sassy best friends rather than heroines.
“This is a pairing that doesn’t normally get screen time. It’s normally pretty White people,” says Nikesh Patel, 36, who plays Tom. But as he understands it, Matafeo’s vision for the show “isn’t really about tackling or addressing representation in an explicit way. There’s a real lightness of touch,” he says, “even just down to the thing where [in most romantic comedies] the dude is, like, markedly taller than the girl.” (On-screen, Tom and Jessie are — as many viewers might gratefully note — approximately the same height.)
“Starstruck” is reported not just by Matafeo’s personal views but also by her personal life. In early scripts, Matafeo wrote a best-friend character named Emma based on her roommate in London, 31-year-old actress Emma Sidi. On the show, she’s named Kate — but played by Sidi.
“I’m very lucky that it was actually my name in the original script. But I still had to audition,” Sidi says with a laugh. “I was like: ‘This is really awkward! But, fine!’” A Season 2 scene in which Kate and Jessie Bicker on a sidewalk was filmed on the northeast London street where Sidi and Matafeo used to live.
Matafeo also hired Alice Snedden, a fellow comedian and a close friend from New Zealand, to write for the show and play the small role of Amelia. It was Snedden, according to Matafeo, who helped her through the pot incident that inspired the memorable scene on “Starstruck.” “It was at Edinburgh Fringe” — the big arts festival. “I had some American comedian’s weed oil and a vape pen, and I completely greened out,” Matafeo says. Some of her quotes from her under the influence of her went directly into the script: “Like telling me her to call the ambulance and that I ca n’t remember names, I can only see everyone in numbers and colors.”
What makes “Starstruck” such a satisfying romp, though, is what makes any good romantic comedy resonate: the love story. Its central couple dazzle from their first moments on-screen together, having a drunk conversation in a men’s bathroom. Over the show’s 12 episodes, Jessie and Tom mesmerize, making each other laugh, making each other mad and turning each other on (often at gloriously unorthodox moments).
Formalists may notice that “Starstruck” is written like a movie, not like a show. “I’d never written a scripted, narrative thing,” Matafeo says, “and it became clear that I was very uninterested in B- or C-plots. I liked writing in a straight line, one story, and I think that’s probably a subconscious influence from loving films. As a kid I always wanted to be a director.” Then her voice de ella goes comedically wobbly: “Then I realized I was a woman, so…”
Casting the right actor as Tom, then, was crucial. In initial scripts, Matafeo intentionally left the character of Tom somewhat unformed, knowing only that she wanted someone who had palpable chemistry with her and who didn’t mind playing the straight man. “You can write a dialogue that’s quite fun and flirty,” she says, “but you have to get the right person to bring that to life.”
When Patel read the pilot script for “Starstruck,” he was already a longtime fan of Matafeo’s comedy, having seen her stand-up special “Horndog,” adapted from her award-winning 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe set of the same name, and other projects. He was enraptured. “I think it’s a good sign,” he says, “when you can park your vain, neurotic, actor-auditioning-for-a-part side of your brain and you’re just like, ‘I hope these two work it out !’”
After one audition over Zoom in fall 2020, Matafeo wanted to read with Patel in person. Even with the requisite pandemic-era six feet between them, Patel says, it felt as it they were “sparking off each other.” “I don’t think it’s a given that gifted comedians are good actors and vice versa” — but Matafeo, he says, is both.
Matafeo knew around the same moment that she’d found her Tom. “Nikesh has a natural ability to be charming and shy. He also just so dreamy in it,” Matafeo says. “I’ve had a lot of men struggle when they read with me to let me be the funny one.”
After shooting two seasons of “Starstruck” in quick succession, Matafeo isn’t sure yet what’s next. She knows she’s tired of looking at her own face on-screen, though, and she has welcomed a brief break — at least in moments when she’s not overcome with anxiety about it. “The other day I had nothing planned and I was like: ‘Okay, well, my life is over. My career’s over. What am I doing?’” she says.
Soon, though, she’ll almost certainly be writing again about love, in all its forms and complexities. She loves love. “Everyone is a stupid human and we’re all biologically wired to seek out love. And potentially romance. Call me a basic b—-. I don’t care,” she adds with mock bravado, then laughs. “Actually, don’t. You’ll be hearing from my lawyers.”