It's not often that a person gets to write themselves into their ideal romantic comedy.
Sure, we all do it in our heads all the time (or is that just us?), but comparatively few people get to write that story down, act it out and then put it out into the world for millions to watch. Comedian Rose Matafeo is one of those people, and she's got a pretty succinct way of summing up what it's like: "It's very weird."
Matafeo is the star and creator of Starstruck, the delightful BBC comedy that just hit HBO Max in the U.S. She plays Jessie, a somewhat aimless millennial juggling multiple jobs who suddenly finds herself in a romance with a famous movie star named Tom (Nikesh Patel) after a one night stand on New Year's Eve.
The six-episode first season (or series, as they say in the U.K.) follows Jessie and Tom over the course of a year as they weave in and out of each other's lives. Every time they see each other, their love is foiled by one or both of them screwing it up out of fear and/or stupidity.
There's classic romcom inspiration to be found all over the series, including Notting Hill and the less com-filled The Graduate, while the 29-year-old actress is specifically a fan of It's Complicated and Bridget Jones.
"[Bridget Jones] was one that I watched over and over and over again as a teenager, like, scarily so," Matafeo recalls. "Despite having been a teenager who lived in New Zealand, like, relating to this character who was 32 and lived in London. I was 16 being like, 'Yeah, I get it.'"
That's what romcoms have the power to do, Matafeo says. They're warm, joyful, exciting, and they can trigger a rush of endorphins for all kinds of people with just a little bit of chemistry and some carefully written banter.
While Matafeo wrote the role of Jessie for herself to play, Tom was originally written as a bit of an "amorphous blob" until Patel was cast, after a very long casting process.
"It's very difficult to cast a lead in a romcom because you have to have certain things. You have to not only be great at your job, great at acting and have comedic ability, but you have to have chemistry with the other person. It's a lot of boxes to tick."
Patel arrived late in the game, but he and Matafeo clicked immediately.
"He's so charming, but I think he makes Tom's character... He's got this dryness that is so appealing. He just nails it," she gushes of her co-star. "He understands Tom's power is holding back, and being like, withholding with his sense of humor, while Jessie is kind of madly extroverted a lot of the time."
Other actors, Matafeo says, might have made Tom come off like a "massive asshole," depending on their interpretation of how a big celebrity might act.
"But he just did the right thing where he played it as a real person who's falling in love with someone and happens to be quite legit and famous," she says. "And I also think that came into play with the writing of it. I think every romcom has external obstacles, and I think his level of fame is a very clear external obstacle, but it's not enough just to be like, oh, he's famous, and that's why they're not together."
Matafeo says that in London, celebrities can be a bit more low-key, which is the thing that might feel less believable for American viewers. Jessie first hooks up with Tom without realizing who he is, or that he's anybody at all.
"That's a huge thing that might not translate so much over to the U.S.," she tells E! News. "It's like, massive celebrities can just walk around Hampstead Heath in this country, and no one will approach them. If you live a boring enough life, you can just go around like that. Kind of like Matt Damon. He's just, like, a chill dude."
In fact, the opening scenes may or may not be based on Matafeo's own experiences.
"You can kind of find yourself in these encounters where you, like, meet a total celebrity on a random night out," she says. "I have had friends who that has totally happened to. Actually, me. It has happened to me, as well, in weird and wonderful ways. It's all gonna be added to the memoir one day."
The show includes a whole lot of herself—written by Matafeo for Matafeo—and sometimes it's a little too close for comfort in other ways.
"You are writing yourself lines that are like you're flirting with yourself when you're writing, and you're like, ew, that's gross," she says. "It feels weird. It feels like, 'Oh, you think someone would like you this much, Rose?' Sometimes you do feel pathetic, fantasizing about someone liking you, and you're like, 'What the hell am I doing, writing this poor guy into this sordid tale of one night stands and falling in love?'"
She compares herself to Jimmy Stewart in the movie Vertigo, when he gives Kim Novak a makeover to turn her into his perfect woman.
"Like, I feel like the male gaze now, which is disgusting," she jokes.
On the other hand, she has to make other characters (and her fellow writers, including best friend and co-creator Alice Snedden) say bad things about her character, and the line between Jessie and Rose becomes even more blurred.
"You're like, 'Ah, s--t. OK, cool. Fun, fun, fun.' It's a very bizarre experience," she shares, especially when she reads one of Snedden's drafts. "It's the worst. It's brutal. I'll read a draft and like, 'Oh, hang on, is this what you feel about me, or Jessie?' And she's like '...Jessie?' That's too long of a pause!"
The writers' room now also features "compliment circles," just to keep the air clear.
Starstruck has already been renewed for a second series, and it's well underway, complete with constant COVID tests and "disgusting" mouthwash to make kissing scenes possible. (This is where the spoilers begin, if you want to avoid them!)
The first series ended with Jessie choosing not to head back to New Zealand, and to stay on the bus with Tom. That means series two is where the hard stuff starts, both on screen and off. Tom and Jessie now have to face what happens after deciding to be together (and sort through the obstacles created by their own personalities), while Matafeo and the writers have to keep this relationship compelling without the will they/won't they intrigue.
"It's much harder writing [when couples are] together, I'll tell you that," she says. "It's much harder for me, but it's different for everyone. Alice, I think, finds it easier writing people together, and that's just honestly a reflection on our romantic taste. I love seeing people in turmoil, in horrible crush anxiety or unrequited love."
Matafeo is not writing the show alone so we don't have to worry too much about Tom and Jessie being in constant turmoil going forward, but it's not all going to be perfect.
"We've got two other fantastic writers who rein me in a lot of the time, so do not worry," she says. "But I'm the chaos element in relationship writing in the writers' room, for sure."
As for Matafeo's own personal celebrity crush, she's quick to name a surprising one: Rick Moranis.
"I've had such a crush on him since I was young. He's just such an amazing guy, such a beautiful spirit, so talented," she gushes about the star of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. "I also think it's the thrill of the chase, because I feel like I will never meet Rick Moranis because he does keep a low profile. He does live in New York, so maybe if I just walk around New York long enough, I'll bump into Rick Moranis."
A girl can always dream.
Starstruck is now streaming on HBO Max.