Profile

On the verge of international stardom, Rose Matafeo combines supremely confident ambition with deep personal doubt. “Seeing yourself on screen is the fucking worst thing ever. Your perception of yourself is the best version of yourself that you perform in the mirror, and that is not what other people see.” By Madeleine Chapman.

Comedian and actor Rose Matafeo

Comedian and actor Rose Matafeo.
Credit: Andi Crown

Rose Matafeo has figured it out. After hours of talking, she’s confident she knows exactly what will be in this profile. “The bullet points for this interview,” she says, readying her fingers for counting, “are that I’m obsessed with boys – and when I say boys I mean men because I’m 28 – I’m very insecure, feeling uncreative, often unhappy, very hormonal, and not currently wanting kids.”

She pauses, palm splayed, and makes sure she hasn’t missed anything. She hasn’t.

“There’s nothing of note to say about me, in my opinion.”

In the absence of anything noteworthy to say about Rose Matafeo, here are some observations. When I first meet Matafeo, she’s in the middle of a one-day, solo press junket for Baby Done, her first starring role in a feature film. It’s lunchtime and she’s over it. It turns out that being an actor has revealed only one thing. “I’m not an actor,” she says. “I wish I could be great, but I honestly don’t mind not being a very good actor.”

It’s a cold and wet July and – unbeknown to both of us – Auckland is between lockdowns. Matafeo will end up spending two of her five months here in lockdown. Up to March, it was all happening, until suddenly it wasn’t.

Matafeo’s one-hour stand-up show Horndog won Best Comedy at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival when she was 26, and the show was soon after picked up by HBO Max as a filmed special. In 2019, BBC Three and HBO Max announced a new joint venture in Starstruck, a comedy mini-series written, directed by and starring Matafeo. At the same time, she filmed her first lead acting role for the big screen, playing a reluctant soon-to-be parent with Matthew Lewis in the comedy-drama Baby Done.

A global pandemic was declared mere weeks before filming on Starstruck was to begin. Matafeo flew from London – where she was working extensively on the show and going through post-production on the Horndog special – to Auckland, where she’d be in lockdown for an unknown length of time with her nan, watching The Amazing Race and Tipping Point and doing a lot of crafts.

Speaking with Matafeo can be disorienting. One moment she’s describing how she “went fully insane last night” screaming and crying while driving along the motorway, and the next she’s calmly stating what she plans to wear to the BAFTAs when she wins (the category, project and year are yet to be determined).

“I feel like I’m getting sick. No, I’m not getting sick,” she says, as we sit down for lunch. She’s not a hypochondriac but is certain her current ailments are all psychological. “When I mentally let myself release something, all hell breaks loose. I get hives and chest pains, can’t breathe.”

I want to know what she thinks of Baby Done and her performance, but she hasn’t seen it and doesn’t plan to. “Seeing yourself on screen is the fucking worst thing ever. Your perception of yourself is the best version of yourself that you perform in the mirror, and that is not what other people see.” She shakes her head. “I’m not ready to accept the perception other people have of me.”

Why act then? “I just loved being part of a film because I love movies and I want to make them in the future.” Being a lead actor was a way to learn about independent filmmaking in New Zealand. There are certainly easier ways to learn about film but Matafeo embraced the challenge. At the very least, the experience will inform how she works with actors on her own films, which, come hell or high water, she will be making.

I can’t help but wonder if her credit in Baby Done – acting someone else’s script – will ever be repeated. “To trust other people to make something good that you’re involved in is a big thing for me. That shows how much I trust Sophie [Henderson, writer] and Curtis [Vowell, director].” As a rule, Matafeo prefers to lead a project, partly so that if it goes wrong she can blame only herself, and partly because “I fundamentally don’t trust many other people with anything”.

Matafeo’s self-doubt when it comes to her self-image and personal relationships is matched only by her supreme self-confidence in her abilities as a writer and performer.

No height is unattainable and she doesn’t compare her achievements to others’. “I really don’t feel competitive towards any of my peers,” she says. “I’m not competing against them, I’m competing against myself to be the best version of what I can be.”

 

Matafeo began performing comedy at 15 after attending a two-week comedy boot camp. In 2011 she landed an onscreen hosting spot on U Live, a short-lived youth-focused music program, before working as a writer on the popular sketch comedy show Jono and Ben at Ten. At 21, Matafeo won the annual Billy T comedy award, New Zealand’s top prize for up-and-coming comedians. A year later she moved to Britain for bigger and better opportunities. If it were a competition, she was certainly winning.

“It’s not a competitive streak,” she insists. “It’s actually almost worse. It’s a compulsion to (a) think that you have the ability to be the best at something even when that’s potentially unfounded, and (b) the confidence that you can achieve that greatness.” She cracks up. “I’m so about that.”

But Matafeo is competitive. A week after our lunch, we are standing in my flat kitchen, making separate batches of panipopo (Sāmoan coconut buns) to see whose recipe is superior. She confidently freeballs hers, not bothering to measure the flour, just pouring it straight from the bag. An hour later, she regrets it. “I’m fucking pissed because yours look awesome,” she mutters, several drinks deep and staring bitterly into the oven. “Mine are way too brown. They’re burnt. I hate this.”

In the end, we call it a tie.

Matafeo likes to joke that she’s “the product of two dark horses of each of their families”. She describes her father, John, as “the buzziest person I’ve ever met”. A first-generation Sāmoan immigrant, he “lived a life that is mysterious to me”, joining activist group the Polynesian Panthers in his teens. He met Matafeo’s mother at the Twelve Tribes of Israel house when they were practising Rastafarians.

Her mother, Diane, is Scottish–Croatian, and is more like how Matafeo imagines herself in the not-so-distant future. When Matafeo was 12, her mum went on an overseas sabbatical for three months, leaving Matafeo and her two older brothers the run of the house (“I basically took care of myself. It was awesome”). She now teaches English in Uganda and, according to Matafeo, is living the life.

Matafeo readily admits that she grew up “pretty disconnected” from her Sāmoan culture, which meant discomfort whenever she was singled out for succeeding as a Pacific Islander or person of colour.

She felt this discomfort when she was applauded for being the only girl at her school’s Sāmoan students’ assembly to receive an award for academic excellence. And she felt it again a decade later when media around the world announced her Edinburgh comedy award, highlighting that she was the first solo person of colour to win. “I honestly don’t feel that Sāmoan, which kinda sucks, so when they focus on just that I’m like, ‘This is fucked, don’t pat yourselves on the back.’ I shouldn’t be the only one or the first one for any of this.”

Matafeo has never been more Sāmoan than she is now. After years of straightening (“I don’t know what I was thinking”), her naturally curly hair is now her staple look. Even her name is changing. In 2015, she may have introduced herself as Rose “Madder-fay-oh”. Now, thanks to efforts from other (white) comedians and friends, the pronunciation has changed. “Mata” sounds like mutter; “feo” has no English phonetic equivalent, but in cadence and delivery it sounds a lot like the first syllable of Freddie Mercury’s famous audience interaction clip from Live Aid (look it up).

Matafeo admits she’s pleased with the change. “It’s jarring now when I hear it said incorrectly,” she says, “which is great.”

 

“I hate so much how bad I am at this.”

We are competing again. This time it’s laser clay bird shooting on Waiheke Island, off the coast of the North Island. Matafeo is here on a Starstruck writing trip with frequent collaborator and comedian Alice Snedden. I am here to ask Matafeo a lot of questions she’s already answered.

Earlier in the week I messaged to tell her that the recording of our four-hour interview at my flat had inexplicably saved 10 seconds of audio and nothing else. After expressing relief that her comments were forever erased, she told me we could redo the interview and promised, “I’ll give you something really juicy.”

Instead she gives me the petty satisfaction of seeing an accomplished, successful person be demonstrably bad at laser clay bird shooting. When we arrive back to their accommodation, Snedden lies down and Matafeo sits on the couch, then walks to the kitchen, then returns to the couch, then walks around the lounge for a bit, then returns to the couch again, before standing up and announcing, “Okay I’ve calmed down now, we can do our interview.”

Matafeo and Snedden have been friends for seven years and have hosted a podcast together, Boners of the Heart, for four. Neither remembers how Snedden came to be writing Starstruck with Matafeo (“If it goes badly, she’ll blame me and I’ll never be hired again,” Snedden jokes). It’s a show, or at least it will be a show eventually, about a woman (Matafeo essentially playing herself, “so it’s not even acting”) who accidentally sleeps with a Hollywood star. Or as they like to describe it, “a reverse Notting Hill”.

Playing a character similar to herself is one thing, but writing herself as a fictional character has brought Matafeo a whole new set of challenges. “It’s a funny thing to try and write yourself as charming and romantic in a script and then in real life just be like absolutely striking out left, right and centre,” she says, half seriously.

Striking out or simply not leaving the dugout? “I think I just choose the wrong bat. No, I’m swinging at bad pitches.”

The metaphor is flimsy but the sentiment is clear. “I just want an August romance or something.”

Romance, love, horniness. For better or worse, they’ve become Matafeo’s brand. Horndog is an award-winning hour of comedy dedicated entirely to horniness. Horniness isn’t always sexual, argues Matafeo during the show. It can be used to describe any form of obsessive love. In Matafeo’s case, her obsessive love is, well, love.

Recently, after two very public long-term relationships, Matafeo has been single for the most creatively fulfilling years of her life. She’s very aware of this. “It’s absolutely no coincidence that my career in comedy got much better when I was out of all significant relationships,” she says.

Maybe careers and love can co-exist, though she’s not sure she’s helping herself by dedicating an entire special to her “hapless” romantic life. “It is a reductive version of myself and a heightened version of my personality so people will believe that they know me very well because they can relate to me,” she says. “But unfortunately, me on stage is closer to the truth than it is to a lie.”

In Horndog, the Rose Matafeo on stage speaks at 1.3x regular speed. She’s a little bit frantic, this stage Rose, in a way that makes you feel as though you’re seeing her at her most vulnerable. But as the special unfolds, elements are introduced that reveal the nervous laughs, hurried speech and impromptu emotion are conscious choices, deployed with absolute confidence to serve the show. Rather than seeing Matafeo at her most vulnerable, you’re seeing her at her most professional and confident. The result is a perfectly paced multimedia performance with the most affecting and satisfying ending of any stand-up special this year.

Matafeo is staring down the red carpet towards fame, fortune and – probably – stricter publicity guidelines. She knows exactly what she wants and has no issues doing the work to get it, whether it’s swinging at bad pitches or creating TV shows. As far as Matafeo is concerned, there’s absolutely no reason why she can’t win everything, all the time. She’s also obsessed with boys (men), is very insecure, feeling uncreative, often unhappy, very hormonal, and not currently wanting kids. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2020 as "Single-minded success".

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Madeleine Chapman is a senior editor at North & South magazine and the author of Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader.