Wear 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 – even preferable.
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 Potter’s Neville Longbottom), Zoe never questions her decision to have the baby – but that doesn’t mean she wants to “turn into a mum”. As Zoe panics about never having done drugs or gone bungee jumping, she outlines the timeline women are meant to follow: “Married, house, baby, done.”
That trajectory loomed just as large on set in Auckland, with Matafeo surrounded by mothers and babies. “The biological or societal pressure to start thinking about that stuff – I found it all too relatable,” she says, Zooming from her London flat. As an “overthinker – of everything”, her response to “all the freakiness of pretending to be pregnant” was to resolve that it was not for her. “My mind went: ‘No no no; I’m not having a kid.’”
Rounding in on 13 years in comedy, the 28-year-old’s 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 “suspiciously busy year” – 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 “nearly 10” 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 Zoe’s “bucket list” and Matafeo’s preemptive rejection of motherhood: both attempt to impose control – or an illusion of it – on an uncertain future. “Our generation tends to overthink and over-plan for things in life,” 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 – ones that acknowledge that “sometimes your mum was not totally stoked to have you” – are still not often told, she says. “I think that’s 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 it’s also the start of a new version of it. I think that’s what people are so scared of – especially millennials going: ‘Oh my God, all of this freedom I have.’”
Work is her source of “meaning and fulfilment” – 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. “It’s unhealthy because I tie so much of my self-worth to my ability to create shit. But isn’t that capitalism?”
She started comedy at 16, cutting her teeth at open-mic nights in front of New Zealand audiences that were often sceptical and sometimes “weirdly hostile”. 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 (“Where both parties are confused as to why they’re enjoying it, but it works”).
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. “You 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.”
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 “oddity on a lineup: you sound weird, you look different and you’re a woman. It’s just a fucked attitude towards women, and non-white women, and people who are not from this country – which is low expectations,” she says. “What else can you do but use that to your slight advantage?”
After her first Edinburgh show, an Australian working in the UK took Matafeo to lunch and advised her to soften her accent. “Like an older brother telling you to be cool in front of his friends,” she says with scorn. In fact, she thinks she has benefited from a “strange, probably colonial-hangover affection for New Zealanders, like you’re a cute little thing”. She did once clap back to ribbing from Taskmaster hosts Greg Davies and Alex Horne for mocking her accent. “I said: ‘Thanks for colonising us, by the way’ – and then everyone laughed!” Matafeo recalls incredulously. “I was like: my laughter is not your laughter. It’s not even really a joke!”
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. “People are like: ‘Whoa, she planned that the whole time?’ That’s how the misdirect of that show works: the meltdown is carefully rehearsed. People don’t expect me to have the skill, which is gratifying when you manage to fool them – but also annoying.”
Interviews and reviews tend to emphasise Matafeo’s nervous energy and self-effacement, often conflating her on-stage persona with her real-life self. It is true she is an “increasingly” anxious person, she says, but she tries to “use nerves to my advantage, to fuel something rather than fuck me over”. 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 “creepy fan fiction” about a hapless New Zealand woman who unwittingly has a one-night stand with a celebrity.
Matafeo describes it as a “reverse Notting Hill – a simple, nice love story. Unfortunately I’m not good at saying anything big, you know? I’m just a basic bitch who likes a good romcom. But it is in NO WAY based on real life.” (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 – including disguising Matafeo, barely, in his book with the pseudonym: Becky With the Good Hair. “Don’t date comedians,” is Matafeo’s 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. “I don’t talk about specific experiences of people because I think that’s a) boring, b) being kind of self-involved.”
But depictions of Matafeo – including her own – 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 “shrine to closeted men of the past”.)
Her interests seem detail-oriented, almost scholarly, I suggest. “Nerdy,” she corrects me. “Yeah: I am a nerd.” She has only recently realised this about herself, she says, after spending her 20s seeking to “change fundamentally who I am, and my personality … You go through this whole period of being like: ‘Nah, man, I’m going to do this, I’m going to be this kind of person’ – and you come back to being the same fucking nerd that you always were, which is comforting.”
She does worry that her online brand – “kooky, weird, extra” – might be repelling men. (Her friend tried to reassure her: “Zooey Deschanel’s married.” Matafeo’s reply: “She is white.”) She would like to be less anxious. And she’d like to come across, in interviews, “as a person who doesn’t seem as fucking mad as I do, apparently”.
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. “Either I’m going to be like an MGM starlet – get married five times, it will be a bit of a laugh – or I will get pregnant, by accident, with someone I barely know. We’ll get through it. They’ll be a great co-parent. We definitely won’t end up together.”
In conclusion, Matafeo says: “It will be fine.”
Baby Done is out now on digital platforms; Horndog airs on BBC Three in March; Starstruck airs later in the year on BBC Three