Very soon, Rose Matafeo will have a place all to herself. In December, the 29-year-old comedian and actor will move into her own apartment in London, where she has lived since 2016. In anticipation of the move, she has been researching how to self-administer the Heimlich manoeuvre. “Because I was like, ‘This is amazing! Independent woman!’ And then I was like, ‘I'm going to die alone because I choke on an ice cube.’”
The move will mark the end of what has been a relentless, revelatory year for Rose. Following the U.K. release of the film Baby Done in January, in which she stars, Rose earned global acclaim in April with Starstruck, a series she co-wrote, starred in and executive-produced. She also made a second series of Starstruck, and, in late October, was preparing to direct and star in the pilot episode of a new sketch show.
New Zealand audiences have long known Rose's high-energy, high-anxiety comedy from her standup routines, or her television stints on Jono and Ben or Funny Girls. Now, the world knows it, too.
Understandable, then, that the newfound attention has prompted considerable reflection on how much of herself Rose feels comfortable presenting to the world. “There’s so much stuff of yourself in the ether, out there on the internet, and the most formative years of your life are just completely out there to be trawled through or examined,” she says. “I'm trying to figure out how much... this is the most new-age thing” - here, she puts on a woo-woo voice - “I just want to figure out how much I want to be perceived, you know? Such a stoner,” she laughed, “but it’s true.”
Too true. Having come of age in the public eye, while regularly mining her private life for comedy, it is easy to find a broad range of obscure facts about Rose's past online. We know, for instance, that at age three Rose met Nelson Mandela during his 1995 visit to New Zealand. She was crying, having been pushed by a surging crowd, when Mandela approached and asked why she was upset. “I was like, ‘MY BROTHER PUSHED ME!’” Rose recently recalled on the British panel show QI. “My mum was like, ‘Do you know who that person was?’ And I was like, ‘No I don’t. I’m three years old.”
We know her interest in comedy emerged early, and as a seven year old her favourite film was Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me – which she wrote about for school. Rose recited her review on the podcast Early Work with Rhys James: “Austin Powers is truly attractive and all the girls like him,” she begins. “I think that Austin Powers 2 is the best comedy I have seen this year (1999).”
We know that when her adopted cat, Burt Bachacat, ran away for a period in 2013, Rose distributed posters around her neighbourhood offering a reward of 100 hotdogs for his safe return: “WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE (preferably alive),” they read. Burt is, to her complete disbelief, still alive, and now lives with her grandmother, Jessie Vuletich, whom Rose lovingly calls “nan.” “They are best friends, truly best friends. It’s the most beautiful thing,” she says, adding that Burt “should be dead. It’s fucking insane.”
There’s one notable area of Rose's life she is yet to explore in her work: her childhood in the Rastafarian movement. “I’ve always avoided the actual interesting parts of my life, because I thought there was nothing interesting about my upbringing,” she says. “I haven’t found what was funny about it.”
On the first Sunday of each month, her family attended a long service at the Twelve Tribes of Israel’s New Lynn headquarters, after which there was dancing and food. “It was really quite boring. We were the goodie-good kids because our dad was in an administrative role, so we had to sit at the front and pretend not to sleep,” says Rose.
She stopped attending in her early teens, but feels the church gave her community and reinforced her natural tendency toward good behaviour. Also: “It actually made me not like reggae for so long. It was all I listened to. The way in which I rebelled against that was to listen to crap adult contemporary middle-of-the-road stuff from the 60s and 70s. So I turned into a nerd because my parents were not nerds.”
(In July, NZ on Air announced that Rose had been granted $472,010 to create a documentary series about Bob Marley’s 1979 concert in New Zealand “through the lens of her Rastafarian upbringing,” but in October, the project was in flux, and she preferred not to comment on its status.)
Alongside his involvement in the church, her father, John, was a member of the Polynesian Panthers – though he was rarely forthcoming about his activism. Growing up, Rose was more likely to hear these stories second-hand through other family members.
“Usually you have to read the Polynesian Panthers books and see your dad’s name. You’re like, ‘Ah, I know him,’” she says. Rose understands his reticence: “He was a Samoan man in the '70s and '80s in Auckland. It’s not a time you’d want to experience. He was in situations where if you went to a protest, it was going to get violent.”
On the Panthers’ 50th anniversary, Rose shared photos of her dad on Instagram. In one image, he sits on the grass as a medic – Rose's aunt – tends to him, while uniformed policemen watch from a distance. “Even in that photo, he was injured at a protest and was being helped out by my auntie, but then he corrected me and said, ‘You know in that photo how the police were just behind us? They helped me out.’ It’s interesting to see his actual first-person perspective of those situations.”
Today, Rose's family is spread across the world: she in London, her father and brother in New Zealand; another brother in Berlin; and her mother, Diane Vuletich, is a teacher living in Kampala. On the rare occasions they are altogether, the conversations flow unexpectedly.
“The last time we got together my mum was like, ‘What if there were no borders?’ My sister in law was like, ‘Jesus Christ, I’m tapping out.’ We go deep. We’re not the most jokey family. People ask me, ‘Is your family crack up?’ Not particularly.”
On stage and on screen, Rose seems to draw a thin veil between performance and reality, so viewers feel as if they are watching a true version of her. “Part of the reason people love her so much is she’s authentic,” says Nic Sampson, an actor and comedian who has worked with Rose on several projects dating back to Jono and Ben.
She often portrays women searching for stability in circumstances beyond their control: an unexpected pregnancy (Baby Done), or being broke (Starstruck), or confronting heartbreak (Horndog, her Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning routine). There is an underdog quality to these roles that audiences empathise with, says the comedian and writer Alice Snedden, who co-wrote Starstruck. “There’s a certain level of self-scrutiny and analysis and contemplation about her life that she does, which other people can relate to,” says Alice.
But to conflate Rose with her characters is to underestimate her. “There’s something in the way she presents herself in the public eye as someone flawed, but then you think – she’s gotten to where she is by working incredibly hard and being sure of herself,” says Nic. “She’s always had a very clear sense of what she thinks is good. She always has a very clear vision.”
Alice describes her work-ethic as “dogged,” saying: “She has essentially a creative drive like hardly any other person I know, and when she applies that to what she does it’s electric.” Unlike her characters, who are constantly on the brink of coming undone, Rose is self-assuredly in control.
The premise of Starstruck occurred to Rose during a flight from London to New Zealand. The show follows Jessie, a 28-year-old New Zealander down and out in London who, one New Years’ Eve, goes home with a man she later realises is a famous actor, played by Nikesh Patel. (The show was loosely inspired by real events involving Domnhall Gleeson, the Guardian previously reported). Mid-flight, Rose wrote a one-page breakdown of the show: episode outlines, character arcs, “kind of like a bit of a roadmap for what the show would be,” she says, and pitched it to the BBC. “They were like, ‘Great, that looks like a good idea. We see potential in that.’”
From there, she created a story document – a more detailed treatment of the pilot episode – which led the BBC to commission a script and, later, a pilot. After filming, Rose traveled to Los Angeles in search of a U.S. network to partner with. “I had different offers and then TBS, which became part of HBO Max, commissioned it.”
By August 2019, Alice had come on board as co-writer. “I don’t think there was ever a formal, ‘And will you work with me on this?’” says Alice. “Over time I just snuck my way in there.” The following March, the crew were gearing up to film when Covid brought production – and the world – to a halt. “I was like, well, that’s never gonna happen, and the show’s never going to happen,” says Rose.
Both Rose and Alice returned to New Zealand for lockdown, at which point the BBC proposed the pair write a second season, to be filmed immediately following the first. Isolating together at Alice's sister’s house in Ponsonby, they wrote six new episodes. “It was hell,” says Alice. “Neither of us wanted to do it, we were like, ‘The world is burning, we don’t want to be writing.’ But we were also in a semi-manic state of, ‘Okay, let’s keep going.’”
Season one finally began filming in September 2020. It soon became clear the second series they’d prepared wouldn’t work: they’d jumped too far forward in time, skipping over the intriguing early stages of the lead characters’ relationship. So in December, the pair began a re-write.
By then, the U.K. was back in lockdown, and Alice had returned to New Zealand, feeling burnt out. Right before Christmas, Rose asked Nic – who appeared briefly in season one – to join the writing team: “She was like, ‘Think about it,’ and I was like ‘No, I don’t need to think about it, I will definitely do that,’” he says. The three held Zoom meetings along with the show’s producer, then would write draft episodes in isolation.
Rose found the process challenging. “I fucking honestly have emotionally, mentally deleted those months of my life,” she says. “I cannot remember much from those months because they were just, like, the worst.” Confined to her house with two flatmates who were also working from home, she set up a “dinky little desk” in her bedroom.
“It was the most fucked-up setup of all time. The places I'd write it would be on my bed, or on the desk next to my bed, or in the little gap between my bed and the heater.” The stress of lockdown compounded the already immense pressure of being creative on a deadline.
For all the struggle, Rose believes the second season is funnier than the first. Comedy, she has found, is not a resource that’s necessarily depleted when the world seems to have lost its funny side. They shot season two in April and May this year, and Rose spent the European summer months editing. A release date is yet to be announced. Asked if a third season had been commissioned, Rose replied: “No. I can’t even imagine making that. I have just finished the second one and I would be so happy not to look at something I’m in ever again.”
Even in the depths of her fatigue, Rose recognises what her hard work has afforded her: financial security; burgeoning clout; the means to continue creating her own work. Intrinsic to the pride she takes in Starstruck’s success is that it is so specifically her – a product of her own vision. “It’s me. The character has so many elements of me and what I do in my comedy. And I wrote it,” she says. “I'm very grateful for every opportunity – but I just want to lie down.”
Photography / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
Stylist / Giulio Ventisei
Hair and makeup / Elle McMahon
This story was also published in the Ensemble guest-edited issue of Sunday magazine