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Rose Matafeo On New HBO Show 'Starstruck'


And finally today, it's the classic rom-com plot - two strangers meet, sparks fly, and wouldn't you know it, one of those strangers just happens to be an impossibly good-looking movie star. It sounds like the stuff of fan-fiction fantasy, but in the new HBO Max series "Starstruck," it's just the beginning of the story. The show follows Jessie, late-20-something New Zealander living in London who, after a boozy New Year's Eve encounter with a stranger, realizes she's just spent the night with a famous actor.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Will you see him again?

ROSE MATAFEO: (As Jessie) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You probably won't see him again.

MATAFEO: (As Jessie, laughing) Maybe I'll see him again.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) He's a famous actor. And you're a little rat nobody.

MATAFEO: (As Jessie) Oh, that's so harsh, but it's true. But you know what? What's done is done. Like, he can't take it back. I am forever a stain on his sexual history.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, screaming)

MATAFEO: (As Jessie, laughing) I knew you were going to react like this.

MCCAMMON: We won't spoil the rest, but suffice to say, plenty of high jinks ensue. It's a little bit "Notting Hill," a little bit "When Harry Met Sally" and an entirely refreshing take on the classic rom-com. Comedian and writer Rose Matafeo created and stars in the show. And when we spoke, she talked about how a rom-com changes when a woman is writing the characters.

MATAFEO: Giving women the good lines, writing a character who is unashamedly the funnier person in the relationship. And that's what was so bizarre, I think. Being in a rom-com myself as a comedian, you notice how much or how little, really, you see a relationship with a woman who's just funnier than the man. And it's just bizarre that it's 2021 and it is so rare to see that dynamic on screen where a man is even laughing at a woman. Like, you know, I dare people to sort of try and take notice of that dynamic in film or television when you see, you know, women be laughed at and be genuinely funny.

And so I think that really only can happen when creators and writers and people in charge higher up are the people you're making it for, if that makes sense. Like, you know, women should be writing for other women, and it's thankfully changing. And also, I think there's a real sensitivity that comes with women and just understanding, like, there's a multitude of personalities to explore within, like, female protagonists on screen. And we're not always, I guess, the same. It turns out that woman is not a genre.

MCCAMMON: Woman is not a genre.

MATAFEO: Apparently.

MCCAMMON: I think, you know, watching this as a woman, that's one of the things that stands out is the degree to which - is the way in which so much of the humor sort of turns on ideas about women that in another context might be seen as negative, which, as you say, sort of seems like a transformation or a reimagining of the walk of shame where Jessie wakes up, you know, and is leaving this encounter with this guy. And, you know, rather than sort of skulking off, you know, with her smeared makeup, like you might see in another genre, she's - as you say, she's dancing down the street. People are high-five-ing her, celebrating her. When you're writing a scene like that, what's your inspiration?

MATAFEO: My inspiration genuinely are the mornings after I have had the exact same encounter (laughter). It's like, it's pure. It's pure. Like, I don't know. I can't imagine writing that scene and not having that be her expression of what's going on inside, because I have literally - and it's quite sweet because there's so many things in the show that I've borrowed from real life that my, you know, the other writer, Alice, who's my best friend, she will - she knows. Like, I've texted her on that walk, you know, in our life, you know, of being like, guess where I'm coming back from? And so it's like we both know exactly how to key into those moments of life where you're just like - the most exciting kind of moments, particularly at the age, you know, that I'm at and we've known each other at.

And so, yeah, I think particularly with a dance like, you know, intro to an episode like that, I think that like, for me, that's the total reaction to you've had a night with someone. They were a good time, but you're never going to see them again. But it was awesome. I'm living life. I'm in London. I'm in my late 20s. What else can you possibly do but have a full dance to "Return Of The Mack" down a canal? It's it's the only answer (laughter).

MCCAMMON: The show is also different in that both leads, both you and your co-star, Nikesh Patel, are people of color. And we're seeing more of that in comedy. I think of shows like "Insecure" or "Never Have I Ever." But it's relatively new, I think, to see that in this genre. Was that important to you when you were casting?

MATAFEO: We never went into it going we want to write this, as you know, a couple who, you know, are both people of color, because I think with love stories as well, there's like a universality to them that you hope that you can achieve - right? - where anyone can relate to two people who are falling in love despite their sexuality, their background. But that's the same as every rom-com that we've been used to. Any of the rom-coms that we've watched, you know, growing up from the '90s on didn't have to be those kind of people, didn't have to be those kind of relationships, but they were.

And I think for so long, people who weren't, you know, heterosexual white people, you know, falling in love, still cling to those rom-coms and, you know, myself included as like seminal texts in life and things that they love so much. But there was still - you're still - when you don't look like the people, you don't have those experiences, you're still kind of having to negotiate the differences between your personal experience and the sort of one that you're seeing on screen.

And I think good storytelling and a good storytelling of a love story means that, you know, it transcends, you know, the context. But that's changing. And thank God, because I think it's such a relief, because to be able to make something where the people don't look the same, they're falling in love and it doesn't - and the fact that, you know, where they're from or who they are doesn't necessarily have this huge impact on this love story.

I think, like, script wise, there's nothing - we never make reference to that because I don't think when you're in a relationship - definitely not me - you never - you're not always talking about how you're not white, you know? (Laughter) Like, sometimes you are. But I think it's a refreshing thing to be able to not have to make that - put a really fine point on that. Do you know what I mean? I think that's the natural progression. I think it's - bizarrely, it's just normalizing people falling in love in shows who aren't who you usually see and not having to talk about it.

MCCAMMON: "Starstruck," your show, just got renewed for a second season. Congrats, by the way.

MATAFEO: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: I'm wondering what it's like for you to write a second season of the show since, you know, more often with romantic comedies, the storyline tends to get tied up nicely at the end.

MATAFEO: I think maybe in a truly - maybe that's the biggest way of subverting the rom-com trope of only having one rom-com film or one sort of story told. We're kind of continuing it and seeing what does happen after that kind of perfect rom-com ending. And it is something nice to that - right? - because I think in the first series we do somewhat up-end a couple of rom-com tropes or do them slightly differently.

And I think it's kind of a lovely exploration of undercutting that or showing people the actual, more realistic second chapter of a situation like Tom and Jessie's. So it has been difficult. It's very strange. I've - there's not many sequels to rom coms apart from, you know, "Before Sunset" or "Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason," both, you know, great films. So hopefully, it will achieve slight success. I never can say - Rose, hopefully it will achieve slight success. I so can't talk about my own work. I should be banned.


MCCAMMON: Well, I'll say I hope it achieves great success. I found the first season very bingeable, for what it's worth.

MATAFEO: Oh, thank you very much.

MCCAMMON: That's Rose Matafeo. She's a stand-up comedian and the creator of "Starstruck," out on HBO Max. Thanks so much for being with us.

MATAFEO: Thanks, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.