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Jess Hong’s life in TV (Image: Tina Tiller)
Jess Hong’s life in TV (Image: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureApril 13, 2024

‘Several hours screaming’: Jess Hong on being cast in Netflix’s most-watched series

Jess Hong’s life in TV (Image: Tina Tiller)
Jess Hong’s life in TV (Image: Tina Tiller)

The 3 Body Problem star takes us through her life in TV, from Spongebob to the prowess of Korean reality shows and why she can’t watch Succession. 

When she got the call that she had landed one of the lead roles in 3 Body Problem, a Netflix sci-fi series from one of co-creators of Game of Thrones, Palmerston North-born Jess Hong was touring an educational children’s show around regional New Zealand. “Duffy Books in Homes represent”, she cackles over Zoom, referring to the production that teaches kids “It’s Cool to Read and Cool to Achieve”.

Achieve she did – keep her cool she did not. “Some people might take the news elegantly, and not spend several hours screaming and running around the house,” says Hong. Her biggest television gig prior had been in Inked, a Chinese bilingual series for Prime. “My mum watched Inked, and it was the first time she’d ever seen anything I’d been in, so that was a big moment,” says Hong. “She finally knows what I do.”

It’s safe to say that many millions more – 3 Body Problem is currently Netflix’s most-watched show – also know what she does now. Hong recalls walking onto the 3 Body Problem set on her first day and being startled that everyone knew her. “Everyone was like ‘hey Jess, good morning Jess’ and I’m just like ‘hi, hi I haven’t met you before, hi’,” she laughs. On her most recent flight home, she was even recognised by fellow passengers. 

In the series, which the New York Times described as a ”galaxy-brained spectacle”, Hong plays the role of theoretical physicist Jin Cheng. After particle accelerators around the world go on the fritz and scientists keep dying, Cheng joins a supergroup of geniuses who assemble around whiteboards to figure out what tf is going on. From there, all bets are off as the audience is thrown into multiple timelines and realities. 

Hong says she could not be further from the brilliant scientist Jin Cheng. “When I was little I really wanted to be an astronomer, and then I realised how much mathematics was involved,” she says. “So I dropped off that whole vibe and went into the arts and writing angsty poetry.” To immerse herself in the role, she listened to a podcast called The Infinite Monkey Cage and read “a book” on physics that she has forgotten the name of. 

Jess Hong in 3 Body Problem

“Obviously nothing has been retained,” she laughs. “But I did try to get a foundational level of the terms that Jin talks about in the show so I’m not just rattling off bullshit.” Thankfully for us, her memory of television is slightly sharper, and Hong was more than happy to reflect on her TV memories from the trippy Spongebob days, to the prowess of Korean reality TV, to why she can’t stand to watch Succession. 

My earliest TV memory is… The cartoon Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. That was really trippy, man. I feel like the creators of that show knew some things about life and they tried to instil that into this really quite scary kids show.

The TV show I used to rush home from school to watch was… Spongebob Squarepants. I just loved the fact that there were these wacky characters that were all underdogs in their own way. I loved how they could live out all these alternate realities, but then keep coming back and starting over again.

The wacky folks of Bikini Bottom

The TV moment that haunts me is… I recently tried to watch Talk to Me on the plane and I made a mistake with that. I should have watched it with people there that could have held me while I cried. I didn’t make it to the end because I was so rattled by it. 

My earliest TV crush was… You know, it’s not TV but probably Daniel Radcliffe and Harry Potter. We were the same age when they were all growing up. Specifically Daniel Radcliffe in Prisoner of Azkaban. That’s when he got me. 

The New Zealand TV ad that haunts me is… I can still remember this cat food ad with this chick outside the door going “Heeeeeenrryyyyyy…. HeeennnrrYYYYYY”. No idea what cat food brand it was, but I still remember that voice. 

My TV guilty pleasure is… I just binged through all of Physical 100 season two. Korean reality shows just do it differently. Physical 100 or Singles Inferno are such a good time. They are just pleasures, I don’t feel guilty about watching those. 

My favourite TV moment of all time is… I read all the Harry Potter books before I watched the film, so I was waiting for the moment where Ginny’s mum yells out “hands off my daughter you bitch”. I was really, really excited when they finally brought that moment to life in the last movie. 

My favourite TV character of all time is… Helga from Hey Arnold. I think about her every now again when I meet people and they are hiding their true selves. I liked that there was this cartoon for kids with a myriad of different characters. But then there was this character that just had such a duality between her inner self and her outer self. It spoke to me as a teenager.

The most stylish person on television is… Any contestant on Singles Inferno. And the best friend in Emily in Paris. She’s not afraid to be a bit loud in a world that’s all classy and elegant. 

The cast of Inked. (Photo: Supplied)

My favourite TV project I’ve ever been involved in is… Inked was really special because it was such a familial environment, it all felt very close and intimate. The fact that my mum could watch it as well was awesome. But 3 Body Problem was such a large part of my life – we shot for nine months and then did two months of reshoots later. The more time you spend on something, and the more you give yourself to something, the more it’s just part of your soul afterwards. So it would have to be that one. 

My most controversial TV opinion is… I can’t watch Succession. And it’s not because I don’t think that the writing is amazing, or the performances aren’t amazing, it’s because it all works too well. I hate the characters, and I can’t stand watching people I hate. 

The last thing I watched on TV was… A really beautiful anime series called Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End. I think that’s the best anime series that I’ve ever watched in my life. 

Watch Jess Hong in 3 Body Problem on Netflix.

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