Stars in their eyes
Starstruck’s Rose Matafeo, Nikesh Patel and Emma Sidi preview the return of the BBC and HBO Max romantic comedy about a millennial navigating two jobs and a relationship with a famous film star.
Maybe it was written in the stars. When romantic comedy Starstruck launched in the UK on online channel BBC Three in April last year, it drew more than three million views in less than two months and secured a second season even before it debuted in the US on streamer HBO Max.
Now with almost five million requests on the BBC iPlayer last year, Starstruck returns for its sophomore season as one of the flagship shows of BBC Three’s new schedule as the channel comes back to linear television after a six-year absence.
One of the most acclaimed new shows of last year, the funny and heartfelt series follows Jessie, a millennial living in East London and juggling two dead-end jobs while also navigating the complications of being romantically involved with famous film star Tom.
At the end of season one, Jessie was deliberating a move back to her native New Zealand. But after deciding to stay and pursue a relationship with Tom, she has to face the real-world consequences of her grand gesture in season two.
The series was created by comedian and actor Rose Matafeo, who stars as Jessie. The cast also includes Nikesh Patel as Tom and Emma Sidi as Kate. Minnie Driver appears as Tom’s agent, Cath, while Years & Years’ Russell Tovey joins the roster for S2.
Matafeo writes the series with Alice Sweden and Nic Sampson. Produced by Avalon for the BBC and HBO Max, season two is produced by Claire McCarthy and directed by Jamie Jay Johnson.
Ahead of the launch of S2 on BBC Three tonight, Matafeo, Patel and Sidi looked back on the success of the show’s first run, explained why season two was written twice and discussed the challenge of writing a relationship drama.
When season one of Starstruck launched on BBC Three in April 2021, the cast had little time to enjoy its instant success as they were already on set filming season two.
Matafeo: I remember the first season came out the day before we started shooting. Someone had texted me saying, ‘Just watched all the episodes, great, when’s the next season out?’ What do you mean? What do you actually mean? It’s very flattering. It was good having the distraction of making the second season while the first season was going out. I’m a massive people pleaser and there was nothing to get in our heads like, ‘Oh, you know, we can’t write that because they might like that’ and basically letting audiences influence what we were doing.
Sidi: I gave Rose some really strict advice, like you can’t look at Twitter at all. There are going to be haters because there are haters everywhere. And then as soon as it came out, it was so great because there actually wasn’t that much hate. I actually didn’t need to be nearly as strict as that.
Matafeo: I was shocked. When you make comedy, the reaction to the fact you’re even making comedy is usually negative in the sense that, ‘How dare you think you’re funny?’ But it was so overwhelming. It actually scared me how nice the reaction was; I was very suspicious and I thought I was in the Matrix.
Patel: It was that quite surreal thing of filming something and people recognising the show, which is quite sweet and also quite surreal because it felt like this slightly Truman Show existence. Maybe because we were in lockdown, I was certainly slightly less aware of people talking. I just felt quite closed off from the world, and then suddenly people on the street were recognising we’re making another season of the show. It was really nice.
Matafeo: That was really weird because [season two] was a seven-week shoot and, in the last week, we were shooting around [London’s] South Bank, where I was in the same costume as episode one. I found it remarkable that people were taking photos and sending them to me on Instagram being like, ‘Just saw you shooting, can’t wait for the second season.’ I was like, it’s only been out for a whole month. It’s so funny people already recognised those characters after a short amount of time.
Matafeo and Sisi are real-life best friends and housemates, and there are many similarities between their own friendship and that of Jessie and Kate.
Sidi: Kate is actually very close to me. It really mirrors our actual, real-life dynamic.
Matafeo: I’m very similar to my character as well. It would be weird [to write] a really transformative role for myself. In the show, we can tap into the most extreme personality quirks and then push them to the comedic extreme, which is easier because it’s less research and it’s fun.
Joining the cast in season two is Russell Tovey, who plays a director leading one of Tom’s films, while viewers also get to meet Tom’s family.
Matafeo: It’s not just chemistry in a romcom between the two leads, it’s about chemistry with every single other cast member, particularly with the larger friend group. Casting Tom’s family was a massive thing because there’s family chemistry as well. It took a while to figure out how to get that warm dynamic in a family too. Casting is always so fun but so difficult in that sense.
The second season just has more great people, and we bring back people like Ambreen Razia [Shivani] and Alice Snedden, writer extraordinaire and scene stealer [as Amelia]. She’s the most reluctant cast member of the show – she doesn’t want to be in it and she always ends up in it.
Tovey was a fan of the show and fitted the casting call for an actor who could portray the “difficult director” character.
Matafeo: Every time we write a caricature of these Hollywood roles, like Minnie’s character as Cath the agent and Russell as a director who Tom works for, all the actors are always like, ‘Who is this based on? Who have you written about?’ That one was an amalgamation of every annoying interview with a male director I’ve ever read, so not one in particular. Russell completely keyed in on it and nailed it. I wasn’t in those scenes but Nikesh got to share those scenes with Russell and he was fun.
Patel: We had to work fast anyway but it’s that really nice thing when you’ve got a new cast member and he brings his A-game. He’s lovely and I’m happy to report there were no method antics – he wasn’t staring me out behind the camera or anything. It was just a lot of fun. Everyone in this cast is a joy to work with because it’s always about trying to squeeze the most out of these scenes, particularly the stuff where we’re on the film set and creating that excruciating atmosphere.
Matafeo: I always find people who come into the core group of people are always trying to impress Alice. She’s got this presence. Russell was amazing because they were doing a rehearsal of a meeting at a restaurant and they were so good in the rehearsal, I was like, ‘We should have shot that.’ Then I thought, ‘I’m not a real actor’ because in rehearsal I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ I could learn from his professionalism.
The ongoing pandemic doesn’t feature in Starstruck.
Matafeo: Weirdly, it was more of a consideration in the first season where it was all popping off. Then I was like, ‘It’s an alternate reality. It’s fine.’ At the very start, people who write and create television were petrified of going, ‘There’s no way in which we can’t discuss what’s going on. Everything’s going to be about the new world we live in.’ And then I realised our ability to compartmentalise our lives mentally and the desire to escape into something that is not reminding us about messed-up stuff going on. We’ve got a high propensity for that. It was about trying to create almost a safe, happy space where you can go, ‘Oh yeah, remember that time?’
The blend of fiction and real life goes further for Sidi due to the fact her real-life boyfriend, Stath Lets Flats’ Al Roberts, plays Kate’s love interest Ian.
Sidi: It’s no secret that Ian is my IRL boyfriend as well. To go even further with that and explore just how weird Ian is was really fun for both of us. We have a little sex scene, which was a really interesting moment where it’s your own partner and you’re like, ‘This is fine. This isn’t weird.’ Then on the day, I was like, ‘I am terrified.’ We even had an intimacy coordinator. I remember thinking, ‘Hang on, we know what we’re doing,’ but actually it was such a saving grace because we don’t actually have sitcom sex. We feel so lucky this has happened in the industry. You feel so privileged we’ve come this far, because it makes such a difference, even with your own boyfriend.
Matafeo: That’s what’s so good about the intimacy coordinator, because good sex doesn’t look good. Real-life sex doesn’t look good. All the sex you see on shows probably wouldn’t feel that great.
Patel also had a reunion on set with actor Vincent Ebrahim, who plays his father on screen for the second time.
Patel: I really enjoyed the family stuff. I’ve had the privilege of working with Vincent before, playing my dad before, so I knew he and I were going to gel. Then everyone just came together and it felt so tight, the dynamic of this really loving family that treats Tom like shit. It rings true with a lot of actors when your family doesn’t really get what you do for work, there is no mystique, it’s not impressive at all and you still have to do the washing-up when you go home. I really enjoyed working with them.
The scripts for S2 had actually been written before shooting began on S1, but when production was delayed by Covid, Matafeo and fellow Kiwi Snedden decided changes had to be made.
Matafeo: We were originally supposed to shoot season one in March 2020, then we went back to New Zealand for a while and wrote six episodes that were potentially season two. Then we came back, shot season one and, halfway through shooting season one, Alice comes up to me in the middle of a make-up change and says, ‘We’ve got to rewrite the second season.’ We both knew as soon as we started making the show, you get to see what tone was being set with the look of it and how the director [Karen Maine] had taken the scripts and turned it into something.
And also there’s the casting. We didn’t cast Nikesh until close to shooting, and then as soon as we started getting into it, we were like, ‘We’re writing in the wrong direction. We’ve written a second season that isn’t going to be writing towards the great stuff that’s coming out of the first season,’ which is testament to the cast bringing so much to the characters and then us going, ‘We need to write towards that or push that. We want to meet Tom’s family.’ In short, we completely rewrote the series and I wouldn’t recommend it. I’d recommend not writing two versions of a series because it takes a lot of time.
The key to the series is the nuance of Jessie and Tom’s relationship, with no single character pitched as the hero or villain.
Matafeo: It’s very hard to do. Often in writing it, myself, Nic and Alice have to advocate for characters a lot and keep pulling it back to go, ‘Are they equally as flawed right now? Are they equally as fucked up?’ We’re emotionally roleplaying those people. It’s so hectic writing a relationship when it’s not going right because it would be me, Nic and Alice just fighting – Alice watching and writing notes and me and Nic reading this written fight, getting really angry. It was quite exhausting. Hopefully it paid off.