We have all fantasised about it: bumping into a stratospheric celebrity drinking alone in a pub, hitting it off and then proceeding to have a wild night out with them.
For comedian Rose Matafeo’s friend, this actually happened. “I’ll never reveal who it was, it’s like a blind item on Deuxmoi,” Matafeo slyly grins, referring to the Instagram page notorious for posting cryptic celebrity gossip.
The anecdote became a key inspiration behind her new romcom series Starstruck, in which Matafeo plays Jessie, a 28-year-old New Zealander living in London who discovers the morning after a one-night stand that she has just slept with a famous film star.
“I just found it so funny and entertaining that celebrities don’t seem real, but then you meet them in real life and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re just a normal person.’ They’ve got all the vulnerabilities that every person does,” she says.
Nikesh Patel (Four Weddings and a Funeral) stars as the seemingly suave actor Tom Kapoor who, despite having his face plastered on billboards and buses, exudes a relatable awkwardness when it comes to romance.
Through a series of serendipitous encounters, the pair engage in a sparky duel of wry quips and flirty jibes. Aiming to "give your heart a boner", Matafeo and Patel’s magnetic chemistry will charm viewers out of their pandemic-induced emotional ennui.
Matafeo describes Jessie as her ‘ultimate timeline Rose’: the more confident, witty and chilled out version. “I guess [Jessie] is like an alter-ego in a sense. If I had never have done comedy, I'd love to have worked in a cinema,” she reveals. “I think she’s far more confident than I am. There are definitely aspects that I think are like me, had I had a different life and different insecurities.”
Jessie is refreshingly content in her slackerdom, happily juggling two jobs as a cinema-worker-slash-nanny, free from the existential anxiety that seems to constantly haunt TV’s millennial characters.
“Unintentionally, I wanted to create a character who was a woman living in the world at that certain age, who doesn't bow to the kind of societal or external pressures as much as we expect female characters to,” Matafeo muses. “Her ambitions are just to have a happy life rather than get to the top. I think being able to normalise that, without saying, ‘we’re pushing the boat out here’, shows potential progress.”
Heavily inspired by fan fiction, the series delights in the fantasy elements of the romcom genre, (namely the outstanding post-sex dance sequence soundtracked to Mark Morrison’s Return of the Mack). As a teenager, Matafeo dove headfirst into the world of fandoms: “Hell yeah! I was big into Harry Potter, Star Wars... some of the [fan fiction] writing is quite incredible.”
Despite spending her twenties trying to move on from her nerdy teenage pleasures, the 29-year-old has finally come to terms with the fact that she will forever be ‘a nerd who appreciates fan fiction’. It’s a pattern she’s recognised among her friendship group as they head towards 30: the refusal to feel humiliation or guilt about who they are and what they like.
“It’s funny, we’ve spent our twenties trying things out, pretending to be different people, and you actually always come back to who you were as a teenager,” she laughs. “You realise [you] can stop pretending. This is actually who I am.
“For an age which possibly in my early 20s I was freaking out about approaching… I’m actually kind of liking it,” she adds.
The theme of nerdy fandom is hilariously explored in her stand-up special Horndog, which saw Matafeo bag the top comedy prize at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018. In the explosive final gag, she relates her all-in approach to relationships to the intense obsession teenage girls have with K-pop. “The amount of love and passion in teenage fandom, honestly, I think it could power small cities,” Matafeo enthuses.
Despite being undeniable arbiters of good taste and galvanizing the careers of cultural behemoths like The Beatles and Harry Styles, teenage girls are still subjects of derision in wider culture. Speaking in the week of football’s European Super League announcement, which saw intense outrage and protests at stadiums, Matafeo notes that we are still socialised to value male passion over female passion. “I’m sorry but if it’s silly to be into One Direction, it’s also silly to wear clothes of your favourite boys doing the thing,” she jokes.
"If you can add a small piece of material into this world where someone out there doesn’t have to conform their identity or personality to someone who they don’t relate to at all, that’s a privilege."
This trivialisation of women’s interests insidiously seeps into all aspects of life. “I always find that with directors, when it’s men it’s a ‘vision’ but for girls it’s like a ‘hobby’ or ‘passion,’” she says. “Even the most artsy, fartsy area of cinema still manages to be patriarchal and you're like, goddamnit, how?”
Matafeo and her co-writer Alice Snedden take a pop at this culture in Starstruck through the immediately recognisable ‘film bro’, whom many women have had the misfortune of meeting: “Your favourite film is Schindler’s List? It’s a pretty obvious choice, no offence.”
With Karen Maine (Obvious Child) as the series director, the female-led creative team behind Starstruck is in on the joke, and Matafeo hopes that men watching might recognise themselves and think, ‘Okay, I’ve been that guy sometimes.’
— BBC Three (@bbcthree) April 29, 2021
The romantic comedy genre has forever been oversaturated with white, middle-class, heteronormative narratives. “I grew up watching all these [romantic] films and loving them but there was always a barrier. I don’t look like these people; I don’t act like these people. The experiences of these people are very different to mine,” explains Matafeo, who is of Samoan and Scottish-Croatian heritage.
Thankfully, the arrival of Matafeo’s Starstruck, alongside the likes of Mae Martin’s Feel Good, signals a romcom renaissance with more diverse representation at its heart. Having gained a second series renewal before the first had even aired, Starstruck's success is indicative of this changing landscape. "We have the ability to make work where the people on screen actually reflect the people in the world, who can also experience love and relationships as well,” she says.
“If you can add a small piece of material into this world where someone out there doesn’t have to conform their identity or personality to someone who they don’t relate to at all, that’s a privilege. I just hope a lot more work is made like that, that actually is different.”
Starstruck is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.