Our cover star Jess Hong on serendipity, self-expression, and not sweating the small stuff

Words by Margie Riddiford | Photography by Olivia Kirkpatrick | Styling by Claire Sullivan-Kraus | Creative Direction by Anna Saveleva | Videography by Devan Narsai | Shot on location at Ayrburn, Arrowtown

From drama school in Wellington to starring in one of Netflix’s most significant shows of the year, Jess Hong has enjoyed the kind of break-through that most actors can only dream of. Shortly after graduating from Toi Whakaari, Hong landed the leading role in a highly-anticipated new series by the creators of Game of Thrones, offering her the opportunity to work with a cast and crew of industry legends and catapulting her onto the world stage overnight. And while her acclaimed turn as Jin Cheng in 3 Body Problem has given her an unprecedented platform, it feels like it is just the beginning for this talented Kiwi actor. 

Jess wears cashmere cable knit jumper from Dadelszen, Tiffany HardWear Graduated Link Necklace, Medium Link Necklace, Bold Graduated Link Necklace all from Tiffany & Co.

It was the kind of call that all actors dream of receiving from their agent. After four months of Zooms, auditions, chemistry reads and character work, Kiwi actor Jess Hong, sitting in her flat in Auckland, was offered the leading role in a new Netflix series by David Benioff, Dan Weiss and Alexander Woo — the creators of HBO’s pop-culture-defining Game of Thrones. Titled 3 Body Problem (adapted from the book trilogy by Liu Cixin of the same name), it was predicted to be one of the biggest releases of the year, and Hong, in what was basically her first professional job out of drama school, would be number one on the call sheet. 


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Born and raised in Palmerston North by a single, immigrant mother, Hong initially discovered acting as a way to combat shyness and social anxiety, realising that the process of escaping into various characters facilitated self-expression in ways that her other creative pursuits did not. “It was catharsis on a whole new level,” she tells me, “but I didn’t understand that it could actually become a career.” 

Jess wears Origami pleat dress from Sportmax, Tiffany T T1 Bangle in Rose Gold, T T1 Bangle in Gold medium, Lock Bangle in Yellow Gold, HardWear Large Link Earrings, Lock Bangle in White Gold, Lock Bangle in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, Lock Bangle in Yellow Gold with Pavé Diamonds, T T1 Bangle in White Gold with Diamonds all from Tiffany & Co.

It was at Wellington’s Toi Whakaari drama school that Hong was able to hone her craft, the place where she was challenged to grow and explore more deeply her inner world, emerging with a much stronger sense of who she was and how she could harness that in her work. “I learned about collaboration and communicating with other artists,” she says, “but it was also a great way of reflecting on myself and being more aware of how I impact the people and the world around me.” And while her first official gig after graduating was a travelling theatre production for children in schools, she had already secured representation with one of New Zealand’s preeminent agents, had connected with a manager in the United States, and was firing off self-tapes for various projects, including one that would change the trajectory of her career in ways she couldn’t have imagined. “When I was offered the role in 3 Body Problem, I screamed my head off and ran around the house,” Hong tells me, reliving that unforgettable moment, “and then I had to pack my things and move to London a few weeks later.” (Her first time visiting the city.)

“[acting] was catharsis on a whole new level, but I didn’t understand that it could actually become a career.” 

Jess wears Origami pleat dressfrom Sportmax, Tiffany T T1 Bangle in Rose Gold, T T1 Bangle in Gold medium, Lock Bangle in Yellow Gold with Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Earrings, Lock Bangle in White Gold with Diamonds all from Tiffany & Co.

It’s an incredible story — destined to become one of those urban fables that young actors whisper to each other backstage or in casting agency waiting rooms. After all, what happened to Hong could happen to anyone, right? And while that may well be true, it was only a few minutes into our interview that I realised, with her laid back demeanour and thoughtful, intelligent answers, how this particular actor felt uniquely suited to her extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps, luck really didn’t have much to do with it at all. 

Jess wears double breasted overcoat from Rory William Docherty, belt from Gucci, thigh high boots (stylist’s own), Tiffany HardWear Bold Graduated Link Necklace in Yellow Gold, HardWear Large Link Earrings in Yellow Gold with Pavé Diamonds from Tiffany & Co.

For someone only just emerging into this industry, Hong’s attitude to its famously cut-throat nature is grounded in reality, and her calm, quiet commitment to her craft seems to override any risk of getting swept up in fanfare. When the self tape request for what was then called ‘Untitled Benioff Project’ landed in her inbox, and even when she had met the creators and was five or six steps into the audition process, Hong tells me that she never allowed herself to assume anything, choosing instead to focus on drawing what she could from each moment of the process. “I guess my strategy for avoiding whiplash from all the rejection of this industry was to lower my expectations to the floor,” she tells me. “So even if I had made it to the final stage for this role without getting it, of course I would have been disappointed, but I would have refused to let it crush me.” 

Jess wears double breasted overcoat from Rory William Docherty, belt from Gucci, thigh high boots (stylist’s own), Tiffany HardWear Bold Graduated Link Necklace in Yellow Gold, HardWear Large Link Earrings in Yellow Gold with Pavé Diamonds from Tiffany & Co.

“When I was offered the role in 3 Body Problem, I screamed my head off and ran around the house, and then I had to pack my things and move to London a few weeks later.” 

It would be understandable for any young actor faced with the chance at a break-through role in such a major production, to lose themselves slightly to the scope of the project. But for Hong, beyond the people and juggernaut streaming service involved, lay a carefully crafted, skilfully written character that felt complex and real to her — and that, she tells me, is what she kept coming back to. 

Jess wears Celine Cardigan Jacket in brushed mohair, Alaïa bodysuit, Alaïa skirt, Gianvito Rossi Ellipsis pumps from Faradays, Tiffany HardWear Large Link Bracelet in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Graduated Link Necklace in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Earrings in White Gold with Pavé Diamondsall from Tiffany & Co.

In 3 Body Problem, Hong plays Jin Cheng, a genius physicist who is part of a group of scientists referred to as the ‘Oxford Five’, each of whom, over the course of the show’s eight episodes, are faced with mysterious (and sometimes deadly) circumstances brought about by extraterrestrial interference. Eventually, Jin finds herself at the heart of an international team whose job is to figure out how to fight a forthcoming alien invasion while the future of humanity hangs in the balance. “When I got the script, Jin was already very fully-fledged on the page because the writing was so good,” Hong explains. “In many ways, I felt an immediate kinship with her because, like she does, I get very focused on my work and obsessive about what I’m doing, so while I was definitely aware of the pressure of playing this role, I always returned to the fact that the stakes were higher for Jin. When I focused on that, the rest would fall away.”

Jess wears hooded trench coat from Rory William Docherty, nylon dress from Prada, Camp rubber boots from Christian Dior, HardWear Bold Graduated Link Necklace in Yellow Gold, HardWear Medium Link Necklace in Yellow Gold with Diamonds, Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. Sixteen Stone ring with Diamonds, Lock Ring in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Bracelet in Yellow Gold with Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Earrings in Yellow Gold with Pavé Diamonds all from Tiffany & Co.

Another similarity between Hong and the character she plays, is that both have New Zealand accents, a detail that speaks to the ways in which Beinoff, Weiss and Woo invited collaboration from those in their production. “Not only were the guys on set every day but they were constantly talking to me about my character’s decisions,” Hong tells me, “and while they were overseeing this world that was being created, they really trusted me to oversee my character and to weave aspects of myself into Jin that made her feel seamless and truthful.” She pauses, “their commitment to quality and authenticity is something to be admired.”

“in its first full week on Netflix, [3 body problem] pulled in 15.6 million views sending it to the top of the international charts.”

Jess wears Celine Cardigan Jacket in brushed mohair, Alaïa bodysuit from Faradays, Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. Sixteen Stone ring with Diamond, Lock Ring in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, T T1 Wide Diamond Hinged Bangle in 18k White Gold, medium, HardWear Large Link Bracelet in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Graduated Link Necklace in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Earrings in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds all from Tiffany & Co.

Indeed, while the overarching premise of 3 Body Problem is that of high stakes sci-fi, the story itself (more rooted in hard science than fantasy-based fiction) comes alive in the quiet interactions between characters, rather than in adrenaline-pumping action sequences. Of course, there are certain scenes — particularly those in the show’s VR game component — that feel vast and otherworldly, brutal and transcendent, but the real beauty of this series, and perhaps a large part of why it has been so successful, is the way it takes time to build and introduce protagonists with whom audiences can truly connect, despite the fact that most of them are scientific geniuses tasked with saving the world. 

Jess Hong wears Nour Hammour Gotham coat from Muse, thigh high boots (stylist’s own), HardWear Graduated Link Necklace in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Earrings in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. Sixteen Stone Ring with Diamond, Lock Ring in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds all from Tiffany & Co.

“I love how it’s got this macro-micro thing going,” says Hong, “where on the macro scale, the show is a spectacle, and offers a philosophical look at how humanity responds to an existential crisis — high concept stuff.” She pauses, “But on a micro level, it’s just about a guy facing his own mortality, a love story, a girl grappling with her moral compass, another one trying to figure out how to save everyone, a woman disillusioned with the world, and so many other threads and personalities that speak to different people and different genres.” Ultimately, what the show runners have tapped into is the fact that audiences wouldn’t care about the extraordinary circumstances of 3 Body Problem if they didn’t care about the characters. And by the end of the series, it is impossible not to. 

“what I really took away, is that nothing is permanent, especially in this business, so even if
I do think about the idea of being known I still feel like it’s just for now, not forever.”

Jess wears the hooded trench coat from Rory William Docherty, nylon dress from Prada, HardWear Bold Graduated Link Necklace in Yellow Gold, HardWear Medium Link Necklace in Yellow Gold with Diamonds, Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. Sixteen Stone ring with Diamonds, Lock Ring in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Bracelet in Yellow Gold with Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Earrings in Yellow Gold with Pavé Diamonds all from Tiffany & Co.

Beyond the backstory and character nuances of Jin, Hong tells me that playing a strong, intelligent woman of Asian descent, working at the top of her game in STEM, brought with it a sense of real responsibility, particularly given the size of the project (and the fact that mainstream television doesn’t have a great track record of doing such characters justice). “As a Chinese-New Zealander in the diaspora and in the arts, I’m always thinking about representation,” she tells me. “But working with someone like Rosalind Chao, who is such an icon, really put it into focus for me,” she pauses. “You know, she came up at a time when the roles available to her were like ‘Chinese Woman Number One’ and she fought tooth and nail to create the path that I get to walk down… I’m so grateful.” For Hong, the responsibility for her now is to build on the trailblazing progress of her predecessors, explaining to me how she hopes to continue their legacy.

Jess wears Celine Cardigan Jacket in brushed mohair, Alaïa bodysuit, Alaïa skirt from Faradays, HardWear Large Link Bracelet in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Graduated Link Necklace in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Earrings in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds all from Tiffany & Co.

This could very much end up the case, considering the ways in which 3 Body Problem has given Hong an unprecedented platform. In its first full week on Netflix, the series pulled in 15.6 million views sending it to the top of the international charts, with users increasingly tuning in as word about its compelling storyline and brilliant performances spread. I wonder how Hong feels about the strange phenomenon of becoming a ‘known’ actor virtually overnight, one of the inevitable side effects of such a sprawling production. “I don’t think about it,” she tells me with a laugh. Although she stops herself before saying, “I was actually talking to Liam Cunningham [the actor who plays Thomas Wade in 3 Body Problem] on set about being in Game of Thrones and the highs of being recognised when that was at its peak and then the simmering and quietening down of that in the years after it finished,” she says. “And what I really took away, is that nothing is permanent, especially in this business, so even if I do think about the idea of being known I still feel like it’s just for now, not forever.” 

Jess wears dress from Max Mara, Knot Double Row Necklace in White Gold with Diamonds from Tiffany & Co.

That said, ‘now’ for Hong, could actually mean the next few years, as whispers around 3 Body Problem’s second iteration and rumours that the creators would like to stretch the story to four seasons start to circulate. “I would love the opportunity to play Jin again and see where she goes in another season,” Hong tells me. “With what feels like the fate of humanity resting on her shoulders, I think there’s so much more there to explore and dive into, if we’re given the chance.” 

Jess wears Alaïa dress from Faradays, HardWear Graduated Link Necklace in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Bracelet in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Earrings in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, Lock Ring in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds all from Tiffany & Co.

What strikes me most about Hong is that, for an actor at the start of her career, she possesses the kind of perspective I would expect from someone who has been in it for far longer. About starring in one of the year’s most notable series, she is grateful and grounded; about being recognised for her work, she is realistic and reticent; and about performing (for the first time) under the pressures of a huge cast and crew, visual effects, blue screens and multiple sets, she articulates that it was “a good reminder of her own resilience.” About the future, Hong is cautiously optimistic and despite the success that this project has enjoyed so far, she has no plans to move away from New Zealand quite yet. “There’s nothing like the feeling of coming home and being able to properly breathe out and relax,” the actor says.

“I do think you can get caught in a trap when you’re so focused on being an ‘actor’ that you forget to just live life… the whole point is that we’re trying to reflect humanity back to itself, right?”

Jess wears Ulla Johnson Lucienne silk dress from Muse, Alexandre Vauthier bow-embellished sandals from Faradays, Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. Sixteen Stone Ring with Diamond, Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. 36 Stone Bracelet in 18k Gold with Diamonds, Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. Ninety-Two Stone Necklace in Platinum and Gold all from Tiffany & Co.

When I ask Hong, given the experience she has just had, what kind of advice she’d offer to other young Kiwi actors with big aspirations she hesitates. “I don’t really feel qualified,” she says, “but I do think you can get caught in a trap when you’re so focused on being an ‘actor’ that you forget to just live life… the whole point is that we’re trying to reflect humanity back to itself, right? So don’t sweat the small stuff and remember that you’re just a human being, doing your best.” 

Jess wears Alaïa dress, Alexandre Vauthier jewel sandals from Faradays, HardWear Graduated Link Necklace in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, HardWear Large Link Earrings in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds, Lock Ring in White Gold with Pavé Diamonds all from Tiffany & Co.

Whether 3 Body Problem is renewed for another season or not (although chances seem high), I am confident that Hong is an actor at the start of a long and meaningful career. From her thoughtful demeanour to her grounded perspective, she is the kind of artist who, I expect will continue to chip away at her craft; carving out something unique in an industry that seems to be changing for the better. “I hope that I can be one of those people who make this path easier for younger generations and those who come after me,” she says, which is something I have no doubt she will do — and so much more.

Photographer Assistant Josh Szeto | Makeup Kirsty Penetito | Manicure Dasha Vishnevskaya. 

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