There’s nothing quite like the delicious sizzle when an onscreen couple clicks: the banter, the smoldering, the gif-ready glances. Which is why so many fell head over heels for Rose Matafeo’s bubbly and sharp series “Starstruck,” a BBC3 original that began airing on HBO Max in the U.S. last year, in the middle of the pandemic gloom.
“Starstruck” follows Jessie (Matafeo), a New Zealand transplant in London, attempting to build a life for herself while having a one-night-stand turned maybe-relationship with a famous Hollywood hunk, Tom (Nikesh Patel). An irresistible mix of fantasy (falling into bed with a movie star!) and reality (living with roommates, working a less-than-ideal job), the six-episode first season scratched a romantic-comedy itch for fans hungry for a love story, and on March 24, it’s back for more.
“I think the second series is really fun,” Matafeo said. “I think there’s a lot more opportunity for comedy because it’s basically watching a woman making a wildly impulsive decision, not thinking it through, and having a sustained nervous breakdown for six episodes. I love the idea of exploring the moments after the big cliffhanger at the end of a rom-com because [normally you] can sort of write your own fantasy of what happens to that couple in your own head after that. I think maybe there’s a realism to the storyline in Season 2 that there wasn’t in [Season 1].”
Matafeo spoke to IndieWire on the phone about what else to expect from the second season, as well as how one scripts the kind of swoon-y romantic moments that will have fans hitting replay. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
IndieWire: What was the original idea for the show?
Rose Matafeo: I just did a show “Horndog” which was fun. After that, I got the opportunity to go to channels in the UK and pitch ideas for television projects. There were lots of “No thank you’s,” and finally one of the channels, BBC, [said,] “One more idea.” And that was “Starstruck.” It was nice because in retrospect all the other ideas I would have been annoyed if I had to write. You know when you’re that desperate, you’re like, “Oh, you know, I’ll just write a rom-com with me in it!” But I’ve always had a love of that genre. I’m such a fan of it and I guess maybe resented the fact that I was never really cast in one, so I’d wrote it myself. If you want to do something right, do it yourself.
I love that what you wrote for yourself was this very fun fantasy about a movie star falling in love with you.
Yeah, I mean, what is that? [laughs] It’s total wish fulfillment. It’s actually almost cheeky and illegal to be like, “Yeah, so just writing a rom-com where I get to flirt with a handsome dude.” It’s outrageous, actually. This morning I was saying so many men have done that for so many years in film and television and so I think, why not? Why not?
Oh, absolutely. What do you love about romantic comedies?
I honestly think I had such an affinity, a borderline obsession with them as a teenager because I think there’s something to be said for pieces of work that provide comfort for people. I’m just a fan of them and I just love any stories about love. [I’m] kind of obsessed with romance and love in a weird, almost academic way. I have such a propensity for watching rom-coms or romance films. I think because I’m a Pisces, and that says a lot about it. I’m a freak, I’m a romantic freak. And I always will be.
To be able to make something that is just like this character you know you enjoy and you want to be with for six episodes I think it’s so much fun to be able to make that because [especially now] it’s such a hectic time. No one was able to go out and everyone was just missing human contact. I think it was like living vicariously through these characters in a way.
You do such a great job with the flirty banter scenes; those moments that really make or break a romantic-comedy. Part of that is your acting partner, but as a writer what do you think makes a good romantic-comedy script?
I honestly think we spend so much time on dialogue. Dialogue is such a huge thing for us writing it. [The writers] know each other so well. We’re three writers who kind of grew up as writers [together] in New Zealand. I think we always looked at each series as more of a film. There is no B- and C-plot. So it’s a very simple story. I think we’re also obsessed with detail in the show, even down to the energy of that back and forth between Tom and Jessie, it’s so specific.
Someone asked the other day, “Is it improv?” And to be honest, no, we’ve worked so hard on the script to be so tightly packed. So many of the rom-coms I enjoy are all about not only very witty banter, but convincing dialogue as well. I think it’s become so clear when you’re watching a romantic-comedy where it feels like you can see the writer and characters aren’t able to bring their own sort of charm to the character. And what’s great about Nikesh is that he takes the scripts that were written and turns it into something else. Again, chemistry is something you absolutely cannot write into scripts. So you can write witty banter, but then cast people who have no chemistry whatsoever and it’s like [death]. So we’re so lucky to have such a great cast.
How did Nikesh come to the show? Were you familiar with his work previously?
He knew some comedy friends of mine. We had mutual friends, and it was a really long process to cast the role and it wasn’t until pretty close to filming that [he was cast. I read through with people so it was] audition exhaustion and sort of also flirty banter exhaustion because I was reading with all these actors. All brilliant. But again, it’s something that you can’t quite manufacture. But then someone walks into a room and you go, “Oh, I can see this working.” And Nikesh came in late in the game and I remember we had a Zoom chemistry read and the fact that that went well, over Zoom, I was like, “Oh, that’s a great find.”
If you can make it work on Zoom you can certainly make it work anywhere.
I know! The most sexless, romance drought. I wonder if anyone has ever fallen in love with anyone on Zoom in this era of Zoom meetings? Aww, that would be such a sweet rom-com!
I know. Write it!
Yeah, a work Zoom romantic-comedy! That sounds like that would not get [permission.] I’ll write the script. I’m on it!
You mentioned Zoom and there’s the scene where Jessie and Tom are trying to have phone sex. Were there specific modern dating woes you wanted to explore this season?
I feel like so many inspirations [for the show] are for films that aren’t necessarily modern from the ’60s to the ’80s and ’90s — when technology was less of a consideration in rom-coms. Although, of course, there’s “You’ve Got Mail.” If you watch that now and you look at the email thing [it’s the silliest thing] I’ve seen in my life, so sometimes we actually try to avoid stuff like that, because I think that kind of dates [it]. I think the idea of the long-distance relationship and trying to make things work over the phone is always such a relatable thing. Particularly for me, I’ve been in situations like that, the writers have been in situations like that. Everyone’s doing some sort of awkward phone sex, like every relationship. I mean, if you’re good at phone sex, more power to you, because it’s very difficult medium.
The comedy potential is very strong.
It is, it’s strong. You know, all of the things I say are kind of based in truth. It’s truly hard to truthfully be into phone sex. You’ve got to be good at improv. You’ve got to be “Yes, and”-ing.
[Editor’s Note: The following portion of the interview contains spoilers for the “Starstruck” Season 2 finale.]
The ending is so moving and full of great rom-com references. What feeling did you want to provoke with the audience?
I think the show we are sort of trying to reimagine, or sometimes undercut, tropes that you often see in that genre, but also, having a massive respect for it as well. I think [that scene is] one of my favorite out of the series because it’s her with all her friends. It’s also sort of our version of the massive big Hollywood rom-com ending obviously undercut by the fact that, you know, it’s just a pond in London. I look like a drowned rat.
But it was just really lovely and satisfying to do something big, and she gave a speech and it feels quite on-the-nose for our show, which is sometimes quite a bit more subtle than maybe other rom-coms can be. I remember we were writing that whole speech and felt like, “Oh my God, this is quite cheesy and heavy,” and then in the moment actually it wasn’t. It was kind of exactly what those characters and story needed at that point: a massive declaration of, you know, I fucked up, I love you, and do with that what you will. It was such a satisfying ending for us to make [and] hopefully a fun one for people to watch. She was saying what she means finally, straight up.
Is there going to be more “Starstruck”?
I have no idea! I’m not sure. And I think it’s always been like whether [the story] warrants it. The first series could have been a standalone thing easily. I think it’s basically figuring out if there would be more of that story and trying to figure out what you want to say out of it. But no plans yet.
Finally, because Jessie goes this season and raves about it: Have you ever seen the “Magic Mike Live” show? Because if not, consider it.
I’ve seen it! [Myself and the writers] who wrote the show went to “Magic Mike” in basically the very early throes of the pandemic. I have so much respect for that show. I think it’s fantastic. And it was so funny that they let us shoot it in the actual theater that they do it in. It was wild. Absolutely stunning. I recommend it to everyone!
“Starstruck” Season 2 premieres Thursday, March 24 on HBO Max.