Rose Matafeo: âHaving a kid is the death of a certain kind of lifeâ
W ear a prosthetic bump, fake a bloody water birth and share your plans for motherhood with a parade of strangers: this seems like a devious form of torture for an anxiety-prone millennial, ambivalent about having children but conscious of her biological clock. Yet it was an act of sadism that New Zealand comedian and 2018 Edinburgh comedy award winner Rose Matafeo willingly went through when starring in Baby Done, a sweet if acerbic romcom about bracing for parenthood at a time in life when other paths seem possible â even preferable.The Guide: Staying In â sign up for our home entertainment tips Read more
The Taika Waititi-produced comedy, based by husband-and-wife team Curtis Vowell (director) and Sophie Henderson (writer) on their own lives, sees Matafeo play Zoe, a headstrong arborist whose dreams of international adventure risk being thwarted by an unplanned pregnancy. In a committed relationship with Tim (Matthew Lewis, AKA Harry Potterâs Neville Longbottom), Zoe never questions her decision to have the baby â but that doesnât mean she wants to âturn into a mumâ. As Zoe panics about never having done drugs or gone bungee jumping, she outlines the timeline women are meant to follow: âMarried, house, baby, done.â
That trajectory loomed just as large on set in Auckland, with Matafeo surrounded by mothers and babies. âThe biological or societal pressure to start thinking about that stuff â I found it all too relatable,â she says, Zooming from her London flat. As an âoverthinker â of everythingâ, her response to âall the freakiness of pretending to be pregnantâ was to resolve that it was not for her. âMy mind went: âNo no no; Iâm not having a kid.ââ
Rounding in on 13 years in comedy, the 28-year-oldâs standup instincts are well honed. Since Matafeo took the top award at the 2018 2018 Edinburgh fringe with her show Horndog, she has been unstoppable, even during a pandemic. She says 2020 was a âsuspiciously busy yearâ â as well as Baby Done, a January run of Horndog in the West End was filmed for a TV special (it arrives on BBC Three next month), and she has been hard at work on Starstruck, a BBC and HBO series due to launch later this year.
As her star has risen on both sides of the Atlantic, Matafeo has been praised for her relatable riffing on hapless relationships, sexual inexperience and obsessive interests. Her style is one of intense self-deprecation, sans cynicism; she is wry, big-hearted and endearingly passionate, and she also frequently taps into that baseline millennial condition: anxiety. In Horndog, Matafeo explored her insecurities about having kissed ânearly 10â men in her life, while her response to her fear of dying, aged 23, was to stage her own funeral at comedy festivals around the world.
Baby Done builds on those preoccupations. It is hard to miss the similarities between Zoeâs âbucket listâ and Matafeoâs preemptive rejection of motherhood: both attempt to impose control â or an illusion of it â on an uncertain future. âOur generation tends to overthink and over-plan for things in life,â she says; the choices seem more and the pressure greater, if only through the distorted-looking glass of social media.
Complicated, ambivalent, messy stories of parenthood â ones that acknowledge that âsometimes your mum was not totally stoked to have youâ â are still not often told, she says. âI think thatâs something that spoke to a lot of newer mums, watching this film. When you have a kid, it is the death of a certain life, but itâs also the start of a new version of it. I think thatâs what people are so scared of â especially millennials going: âOh my God, all of this freedom I have.ââ
Work is her source of âmeaning and fulfilmentâ â to the point that last year Matafeo was desperate to get back to a Covid-ravaged UK after five months back home in New Zealand. âItâs unhealthy because I tie so much of my self-worth to my ability to create shit. But isnât that capitalism?âBy any other name ... Rose Matafeo in Horndog. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
She started comedy at 16, cutting her teeth at open-mic nights in front of New Zealand audiences that were often sceptical and sometimes âweirdly hostileâ. As much as she might grimace to recall the tough crowds now, they helped her land on a performing style that maintained her essence but also got laughs out of people who did not necessarily share her views (âWhere both parties are confused as to why theyâre enjoying it, but it worksâ).
By the time she moved to London in 2015 (to be with her then-boyfriend, comedian James Acaster), Matafeo was a staple on New Zealand television and a sort of First Lady-figure among a new wave of progressive young comedians, many of whom appear in Baby Done. She had the space to properly develop, she says. âYou can see that the successful comedians who have come from New Zealand, like Flight of the Conchords, they had the time to become what they are, and go overseas as a fully formed thing.â
That experience allowed her to skip the open-mic slots in the UK, and gave her the advantage of surprise. But that has sometimes been a mixed blessing. As a woman of Samoan (and Scottish-Croatian) descent not from the US or UK, Matafeo says she is often included as an âoddity on a lineup: you sound weird, you look different and youâre a woman. Itâs just a fucked attitude towards women, and non-white women, and people who are not from this country â which is low expectations,â she says. âWhat else can you do but use that to your slight advantage?â
After her first Edinburgh show, an Australian working in the UK took Matafeo to lunch and advised her to soften her accent. âLike an older brother telling you to be cool in front of his friends,â she says with scorn. In fact, she thinks she has benefited from a âstrange, probably colonial-hangover affection for New Zealanders, like youâre a cute little thingâ. She did once clap back to ribbing from Taskmaster hosts Greg Davies and Alex Horne for mocking her accent. âI said: âThanks for colonising us, by the wayâ â and then everyone laughed!â Matafeo recalls incredulously. âI was like: my laughter is not your laughter. Itâs not even really a joke!âJust kidding ... Rose Matafeo and Matthew Lewis in Baby Done. Photograph: Geoffrey Short
Other times audiences respond with surprise when she makes them laugh at all. There is a backhanded compliment to their delight at the end of Horndog when she reveals she has been in control of her on-stage downward spiral all along. âPeople are like: âWhoa, she planned that the whole time?â Thatâs how the misdirect of that show works: the meltdown is carefully rehearsed. People donât expect me to have the skill, which is gratifying when you manage to fool them â but also annoying.â
Interviews and reviews tend to emphasise Matafeoâs nervous energy and self-effacement, often conflating her on-stage persona with her real-life self. It is true she is an âincreasinglyâ anxious person, she says, but she tries to âuse nerves to my advantage, to fuel something rather than fuck me overâ. Matafeo is more likely to draw from her fantasies than her own life. Starstruck, which she wrote as well as stars in, is based on her âcreepy fan fictionâ about a hapless New Zealand woman who unwittingly has a one-night stand with a celebrity.
Matafeo describes it as a âreverse Notting Hill â a simple, nice love story. Unfortunately Iâm not good at saying anything big, you know? Iâm just a basic bitch who likes a good romcom. But it is in NO WAY based on real life.â (After much pressing, she reluctantly admits that her initial inspiration was Domhnall Gleeson.)
By contrast, James Acaster has referenced their 2017 breakup and his subsequent breakdown in much of his recent output â including disguising Matafeo, barely, in his book with the pseudonym: Becky With the Good Hair. âDonât date comedians,â is Matafeoâs response. It can be a fine line to tread when comedians draw so much material from their personal experience, she concedes. Her own preference is for more observational comedy. âI donât talk about specific experiences of people because I think thatâs a) boring, b) being kind of self-involved.âOn reflection... Rose Matafeo. Photograph: Geoffrey Short
But depictions of Matafeo â including her own â as a hapless, anxious millennial might not tell the whole story. She comes across as an old soul, deeply engaged with her obsessions: celebrity crushes, fandom, 90s R&B, elaborate craft projects, old Hollywood. (There are studio portraits of Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift tacked to her bedroom wall, her accidental âshrine to closeted men of the pastâ.)
Her interests seem detail-oriented, almost scholarly, I suggest. âNerdy,â she corrects me. âYeah: I am a nerd.â She has only recently realised this about herself, she says, after spending her 20s seeking to âchange fundamentally who I am, and my personality â¦ You go through this whole period of being like: âNah, man, Iâm going to do this, Iâm going to be this kind of personâ â and you come back to being the same fucking nerd that you always were, which is comforting.â
She does worry that her online brand â âkooky, weird, extraâ â might be repelling men. (Her friend tried to reassure her: âZooey Deschanelâs married.â Matafeoâs reply: âShe is white.â) She would like to be less anxious. And sheâd like to come across, in interviews, âas a person who doesnât seem as fucking mad as I do, apparentlyâ.
But Matafeo says she is inching closer to acceptance, with herself and with uncertainty. Having put space between her and Baby Done, she has revised her vision of her future. âEither Iâm going to be like an MGM starlet â get married five times, it will be a bit of a laugh â or I will get pregnant, by accident, with someone I barely know. Weâll get through it. Theyâll be a great co-parent. We definitely wonât end up together.â
In conclusion, Matafeo says: âIt will be fine.â
Baby Done is out now on digital platforms; Horndog airs on BBC Three in March; Starstruck airs later in the year on BBC Three