As the second season of her hit comedy Starstruck gets underway, Rose Matafeo talks about her lifelong obsession with romantic comedies, the curse of the sequel and making out in a pandemic.
As anyone who saw the first season knows, Starstruck is something special – all at once charming, awkward and oftentimes profound. The BBC-made show tells the story of Jessie, a very familiar-looking New Zealander living in London, who unwittingly hooks up with Tom, a movie star. He’s charismatic but lonely, she’s awkward but charming; despite their differences, they find themselves drawn to each other.
So far, so Notting Hill, but Rose Matafeo – Starstruck’s creator, co-writer and star – says any similarities to the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts classic are purely intentional. Matafeo has been obsessed with romantic comedies since she was a teenager; her show is consciously part of the new wave of romcoms that pay tribute to romantic comedies of the past while establishing a new direction for the genre.
The second season of Starstruck picks up right where the first left off – with the pair, Jessie and Tom sitting together at the back of a bus, Graduate-style, slowly coming to grips with Jessie’s decision not to get on a flight home to New Zealand. Will the pair get their happily ever after? I spoke to Matafeo about the making of the season, and what’s in store for Jessie and Tom in season two.
Congratulations on the new season. Was it a coincidence that it was released in Valentine’s Day week?
It actually is purely a coincidence. But I think it came out here [in the UK] because people are very depressed about it being such terrible weather. So it’s something hopefully to cheer people up, but it’s been very advantageous that it came out in Valentine’s Day week.
You could really sense the nods to past romcoms in the first season of Starstruck. Have you stuck with those same influences in the new season or have you taken a new direction?
There’s always references to the genre that we’re operating in. But I think it’s a bit of a different take on the traditional romcom thing of finishing on a high and on a big, dramatic ending. The second season is all about what happens directly after you make that huge proclamation at the end of the romcom, where you make a massive romantic decision – the actual real-world ramifications of when that happens, and how difficult it is to come back from that. So it’s about Jessie dealing with the fact that she has just missed a flight back to New Zealand. She’s decided to stay in London, because she wants to, but also because obviously there’s, you know, this thing she has with Tom.
When women in film or television make a decision like Jessie does, to follow a man, often it’s framed as being dis-empowering. Is it difficult to avoid a decision like that being read in that way by the audience?
That’s, I think, the whole point of the second series. Jessie struggles with that because her character is very independent but she’s also very impulsive. It’s the push and pull of those two very true things about herself. She doesn’t want anyone to think that she stayed for someone but that really was the catalyst for a very deeply impulsive decision. You could have put her in a position where other things inspired her to miss her flight but she’s also very deeply romantic.
And when you’re writing and trying to create a story, I don’t think writers and characters should be beholden to be the moral compass of things. Personally, I never start writing and go, “OK I want a character that’s going to be this and this and this and empowering in these ways”. You do always check yourself as a writer by going, “these decisions this character is making, do they align with my personal principles?”. Sometimes they don’t. And that’s because life is very complicated and often you do things that are diametrically opposite to the principles that you believe that you hold.
I think that’s what’s interesting about a story and those conflicts and characters. I’ve moved countries for a boy. I know many people who moved countries or stayed in a country for a guy or a gal. It’s an unfortunate thing about being in love.
Yep, we’ve all been there. I’ve been reading quite a bit about Sex in the City lately, because of the new series of the show, and that is such a constant criticism of those four characters, that they made terrible decisions. But I mean, the alternative would be so boring, right?
There’s something to that series now, which, because of the time it’s being made in, I guess they’re less able to make mistakes. I mean, there’s some pretty dodgy stuff in original Sex in the City, but it toes the line. It explored things that you saw in real life, that you never saw on television, and I think a bit of that sort of energy has been lost in the new one because they don’t take as many risks in that regard. Like many other things, I think it’s sometimes foolish to look to art to inspire your morality. What you put out there is important and you have to stand by it, but no one really wants to see characters making perfect decisions all the time, because it is kind of boring.
Absolutely. The first season of Starstruck gives me the same warm but also very awkward vibe as Bridget Jones’ Diary. Has that been an influence?
Totally. I mean, it was one of my favourite films growing up and it’s probably still one of my favourite films. It’s exactly that kind of warmth. It’s a comforting film to me. You’ve got so much love for a lot of those characters, even the bastard ones. Like, I love Hugh Grant in that. Now I’m approaching the age that Bridget was so I think those things really inspire you. I want to make something that’s a comfort to people and is somewhat an escape.
And [we’re] also trying to create something that’s kind of timeless – it sounds pretty weird to reference work that you’ve made saying that you want it to be timeless, but there is an element of that. Starstruck does exist in a world where we avoid specific topical references and it hopefully doesn’t age fast because of that. That was definitely an influence from Bridget Jones as well. Even though you watch Bridget Jones and she’s changing a Nokia phone cover, so we’re like, “OK we know, this was made in 2001”, but there are so many things that are still so true about that film.
I know that I find this kind of strange personally, but how do you feel about approaching the same age as these female leads from the romcoms we’ve grown up with?
It’s so bizarre. It was so weird, I would be a 16 or 17 year-old feeling like I was Bridget Jones and I was like, “what the fuck, I’m a teenager, how am I identifying with this person who’s complaining about how they’re single?”. But I think that’s the wonderful thing about love and romance – that you can be 60 and you’ll still get a crush on someone just like when you were 16 years old. I love that it’s a theme to explore that can connect with so many different ages. You can be in different circumstances, but still the root of that feeling is so vital. It just stays with you. I’ll be 60 and I’ll still have crushes on people. Honest to god, I will never stop. I mean, I watched It’s Complicated when I was 16 and was obsessed with it, and it’s about Meryl Streep who is in her 50s. I was like, “how am I relating to this?”. Bizarre.
There’s a bit of a curse with any movie sequels, but especially romcom sequels. They’re so often considered worse than the original. Did that make it tricky to do a follow up to a really successful first season?
Yeah, it’s very daunting. It’s traditionally just not done because part of the nature of a romcom is that it ends, and you just can fill in the blanks and leave on a high and feel uplifted at the end of it. So it goes against the nature of the genre a bit. But we’re making Starstruck at a time which has progressed on from those 90s or 2000s romcoms, so I think we’ve got the ability, and audiences have the ability to be really familiar with the tropes of romcoms, and then understand and recognise when we slightly subvert them. Even the existence of a second series is a subversion of a trope, which is the happy ending.
So it is very difficult. I often watch things, particularly television series and stuff, just because I want to see the characters again. And you just hopefully fall in love with that world. So I hope people like it. I do hope so.
Did you study a bunch of romcom sequels or anything to get in the zone? Are there any romcom-sequel conventions that exist?
There aren’t many. There’s Bridget Jones which is an obvious one and I don’t think that was a fantastic one. It was a good second book, but it wasn’t a great second film. But Bridget Jones’ Baby was pretty decent. I enjoyed that. There’s Before Sunrise and then Before Sunset. There are also old films, like the Thin Man series, which is about a married couple. I do like the nature of screwball comedies as well. And, I love that kind of old school thing of just putting the same actors in the same films but a different context, just because you wanted to see those characters and that chemistry again. We’re all just pretending we hadn’t seen Hugh Grant or Tom Hanks in something else. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan did three films together. Joe Versus the Volcano, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail. Maybe I should just write a new series where they’re two completely different people and it’s an alternate universe.
An excellent idea. My last question, because I think we’re about to hit the 15 minute mark. But is it kind of weird writing about dating in a pandemic?
It was difficult at the height of the pandemic, for sure. People are getting into it again though. I mean it’s so funny to be single for two series of writing a romcom. I say it’s a bizarre experience, but to be honest, it’s massively helpful because I’m in a neutral state. I don’t have to let being in a relationship affect my idea of love and romance. But to be fair, maybe being single affected it as well. The slight cynicism on Jessie’s part is maybe influenced by being single during a pandemic. But what was nice is that, I think a lot of people worried that it would be weird to watch things on television, where you saw people touching again, and dating and kissing, and it’s almost like, “oh, no, it’s never going to be the same because of Covid”. And it was just so untrue because humans will find a way to make out and to watch other people make out.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Starstuck season two is streaming on TVNZ On Demand, and airs weekly on TVNZ2.