Comedian Rose Matafeo: “I left New Zealand because there’s nobody to date”

With an acclaimed romcom, one-off HBO special and a new sitcom out this year, 2021 is looking good for the rising comic. George Fenwick meets London's funniest Kiwi

When comedian Rose Matafeo met Matthew Lewis on the set of Baby Done, she had to explain to the former Harry Potter star that they’d actually met before, in slightly more awkward circumstances. In 2004, Lewis travelled to New Zealand for a pop culture convention, and Matafeo, then a “nerdy 15-year-old girl,” queued for hours to meet him.

“I showed him the picture,” she laughs. “I remember going to that [convention] and being like: ‘Oh my god, let’s go get his autograph.’ It was a very funny, surreal experience to actually work with him. But I also got the autograph of the voice of Jimmy Neutron that year as well, so hopefully I’ll be working with them in a couple years time.”

Baby Done
Rose Matafeo and Matthew Lewis play partners who discover they are about to become parents. Credit: Vertigo Releasing

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For now, though, fans of the rising New Zealand-born comic will have to make do with Baby Done, the two actors’ charming indie film that hits UK screens today. Produced by Taika Waititi, the movie follows Zoe – a young woman who attempts to rush through her dreams upon discovering she is pregnant. In a now all-too-relatable spiral, Zoe feels as though she hasn’t been taking advantage of her freedom while she has it.

“Before the global pandemic, what I think a lot of people connected to with this character, particularly if they’re considering starting a family, is that it’s like the death of a certain life, and you do grieve it,” says Matafeo, speaking over Zoom from her London flat. “That is particularly relatable in the context that we’re in right now – we did have to kind of grieve a certain way of life.

Rose Matafeo
At the 2018 Edinburgh Comedy Awards. Credit: Getty

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” she continues. “It’s like when you go through a bad breakup, and you think, ‘I cannot live through that, I will not be alive at the end of this process.’ But then you’re like, ‘Oh, no, I am, after a year of it. I’m still me, and the world has just changed’. Humanity persists.”

If 2020 was a bad year for Matafeo, then it balances out the several very good ones that came before. A winner of the Edinburgh Fringe Award in 2018 for her comedy show Horndog, the New Zealand-Samoan comedian is better known for her witty, self-deprecating, pop-culture-obsessed stand-up than dramatic acting roles. Following her historic Edinburgh win (Matafeo was the first woman of colour to take home the award), she went on to appear on the ninth season of popular panel show Taskmaster, release Horndog as an HBO special, and write and star in an upcoming scripted comedy for the BBC. Baby Done, however, marks her first leading role in a feature film.

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“They initially got me in for script development [in 2018],” she says. “I came on just to help out with scenes, reading through them and acting them out, and then I somehow put it into their heads that I would be okay in the film.”

While Matafeo is permanently based in London, she relished the chance to work over a summer back in Auckland. “Every time I go back to New Zealand I live with my Nan, and it is the sweetest thing,” she says. “I don’t know if she fully understood how much you are catered for on set, so she’d send me to work with like, pavlovas and lemon drizzle cakes and smoked snapper. She’s actually thanked in the credits, which is very sweet.

“It was quite cool because it really proved to my Nan that I have a job. I was getting up at 5am, and she was impressed. She’d say: ‘Oh, you’re getting up so early!’ And I’d say: ‘I know. Isn’t that impressive? I guess it’s actually a worthwhile job, working in comedy.’”

Such a comment is trademark Rose Matafeo: she’s been performing comedy since she was 15, but it was only after her Edinburgh win that she felt she could call herself a comedian. She hears from Americans who have watched her HBO special and loved it, and her reaction is: “Wow, that’s so weird. How do you understand my accent?” While her success has earned her the admiration and/or friendship of mainstream comedy figures like Nish Kumar and Ed Gamble – not to mention New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – Matafeo remains unwaveringly humble, an instantly recognisable trait to anyone who’s ever known a Kiwi.

“New Zealand has this funny attitude towards celebrities where we’re not so impressed,” she says. “We are secretly impressed, but we never want to show it, so we’re not sycophantic about it.”

That attitude is reflected in Starstruck, Matafeo’s upcoming BBC/HBO series, which follows a young woman in London who wakes up after a one night stand to discover she has slept with a movie star. It was inspired in part by some of Matafeo’s Kiwi friends in London who bumped into a major Hollywood actor (who she doesn’t want to name) in a pub. “They saw him drinking alone, and they said, ‘Oh my god, are you so-and-so?’ – and then hung out with him all night, took him to this bar in London. And there was something really funny about it being New Zealanders, because we’re not sycophants,” she says. “And it’s also just fanfic, I guess, really?”

Baby Done
‘Baby Done’ is streaming now. Credit: Vertigo Releasing

With New Zealand now COVID-free, and having elected a majority left-wing government (Matafeo is an ardent Green Party supporter), she says she is often tempted to return home. But she’s not done with the Big Smoke just yet. “London, and the opportunities for creating stuff, is exciting,” she says. “New Zealand is fantastic, but it’s fucking small.

“I literally tried to get one date in five months in Auckland, and I couldn’t. Auckland is quite small, so you know everyone, and everyone in Auckland has a partner already, so there’s nobody to date. The fact that I went back to New Zealand, a country where you are legally allowed to date, and I couldn’t manage to get one – I was like, I’m done with this country. I’m fleeing back to London.”

She’s currently locked down here with the rest of the UK, flatting with two comedian friends. Their industry may be at a standstill, but Matafeo’s face will be on your screen for a while yet. Following Baby Done’s digital release, Horndog will be airing on BBC Three in March. After that, look out for her live-action Jimmy Neutron sequel in a few years’ time.

‘Baby Done’ is available now on digital platforms, ‘Horndog’ airs on BBC Three in March and ‘Starstruck’ arrives on BBC Three later in the year

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