This cut backstory explains the most intriguing relationship in Netflix's '3 Body Problem'


Warning: this story includes spoilers for Netflix’s “3 Body Problem.”

Rosalind Chao is one of Jess Hong’s biggest fans.

“I’m going to embarrass you so you can plug your ears if you want,” says Chao to her “3 Body Problem” co-star during a joint video call in the lead-up to the sci-fi series’ premiere. “Because I know you’re about to make that face.”

Hong, for her part, knows it’s best to play along and cups her hands over her ears. Chao’s periodic warnings punctuate the conversation: during her recounting of when she told series co-creator Alexander Woo that Hong’s casting was a coup, as well as when she reflects on how the Hollywood newcomer has handled the weight of the role and the spotlight.

The actors’ mutual respect and affection are quite the contrast to the falling-out their characters go through as scientists with opposing outlooks on an alien invasion in “3 Body Problem,” out now on Netflix.

Based on a trilogy of books by Chinese author Cixin Liu, the series, co-created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss of “Game of Thrones” fame and “The Terror: Infamy’s” Woo, unfolds over multiple timelines. Chao plays the present-day Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist whose experiences during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s have shaped her views of humanity. (Ye in the past is portrayed by Zine Tseng.)

“In Ye Wenjie’s mind, there is nothing else other than the world falling apart,” says Chao. “I do see her as a devoted mother, but she has a greater purpose … [and] want[s] the greater good.”

This “greater purpose” involves readying Earth for conquest by the San-Ti, technologically advanced aliens from a struggling planet in a distant star system. After revealing Earth’s location to the San-Ti by responding to their communications, Ye helps found an organization of devoted followers who are anticipating the alien armada’s arrival.

Hong plays Jin Cheng, a genius particle physicist who as a student at Oxford was mentored by Professor Vera Ye — Ye Wenjie’s daughter. At the start of the story, Jin’s primary conundrum, shared with her friends, is that science might be broken.

“Jin [has been] able to go to new places just by working hard and being smart,” says Hong. “She has tragedy in her background, but it’s not something that holds her back. It’s something that actually drives her forward.”

Whereas Ye is driven by her belief that the San-Ti’s arrival will save humanity from itself, Jin is propelled by her belief in science. “Science and actually solving problems is her faith,” says Hong. She believes that “ambition is going to move people forward.”

After Vera’s sudden death, Jin’s curiosity and proficiency in science pulls her into the orbit of the cult-like San-Ti followers as well as the secret government agency trying to investigate the organization.

Chao admits she was unfamiliar with Liu’s novel series when she was approached about the project. (She has since narrated “The Three-Body Problem” audiobook.) And though she was wowed by Woo’s explanation of the show, she wasn’t initially convinced that it was a fit for her. She didn’t get excited until she learned they would be aging her up for the role.

“David at one point said, ‘How do you feel about old-age makeup?’” says Chao. “I didn’t realize she was going to be an older woman at first. I was like, ‘I have been waiting my whole life for this.’ Because every other job I’d done when I was younger [involved] a [surprise] bikini scene or [being told], ‘You have to kiss this person.’ This is a dream come true.“

A New Zealander, Hong auditioned for a project she only knew as “Untitled Benioff” and prepared never to hear back about it. But after sending in her self-tape, she found herself fielding Zoom calls from the showrunners while on the road as part of a traveling show for kids. She even had to do one of her virtual chemistry reads with Alex Sharp, who plays Will Downing, while sitting at a tiny desk in an elementary school classroom.

“It was only when I booked the role that I even knew what it was called,” says Hong. “Even though I knew that this is a really interesting show where there’s this weird kind of game world happening that’s absurd … it didn’t even click for me that it was sci-fi.”

Hong’s oversight is a testament to the character-driven nature of the series. Despite involving high-tech gadgets and advanced scientific concepts, “3 Body Problem” is an exploration of humanity rooted in its characters and the decisions they make.

One of the first scenes Chao and Hong filmed together finds Jin learning about Ye’s involvement with the San-Ti at a meeting she infiltrates in Episode 4. For Jin, Ye’s betrayal of humanity is personal because of their relationship, which is addressed briefly in the series. In one of their last scenes, an exchange in an interrogation room, Jin confronts Ye about her part in it all.

“Originally, they had written a lot more about their backstory,” says Hong. “When Jin first arrived [in the U.K.], she’s totally out of place, doesn’t feel comfortable and only has science to hold on to. And there’s Vera’s mum, who’s like this sweet old lady, this auntie who comes in [and] cooks for her so she goes over to their house sometimes. It’s a place where she can feel at home.”

Hong and Chao agree that Ye probably saw herself in Jin as a young, promising scientist. In some ways, Jin represents the type of person Ye could have been had she not lived through the revolution.

“I feel that for Ye, that betrayal is extremely practical,” says Chao. “She doesn’t see herself as doing evil so much as the greater good — does one person count more than all of humanity? And as much as she loves Jin … she sacrificed so much to get this far, she’s not going to let Jin get in the way.”

While the showrunners made numerous changes for their adaptation, including moving the setting to the U.K. and introducing original characters, Ye’s backstory with the revolution remains faithful to Liu’s novel.

“It was such a powerful way to ground everything that happened in the story in real history and making up some analogue of that would never have had the same impact as cutting as close to documentary realism,” said Weiss.

For director Derek Tsang, who worked on the first two episodes and did extensive research to ensure the show’s portrayal of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was authentic, “history is really important.”

“History is prologue,” said Tsang. “What happened in the past, it’s very relevant to what we’re going through nowadays. As a filmmaker, whenever I have to deal with something historical in a film, I want to make sure I get it right and be historically accurate.”

But for Chao, it’s not only surviving the revolution that has shaped Ye: she’s also an immigrant. Chao’s own parents were immigrants and she notes that because of this, they were very focused on “achieving in America” when she was growing up. She sees some parallels with how Ye must have had to navigate the world once she was able to leave China.

“She sacrificed everything for this,” says Chao. “I truly believe that we’re all a product of our upbringing, and [Ye’s] upbringing is particularly unique and intense and I think it creates a different trauma response.”

Chao’s observations lead Hong to consider “generational differences and what doors are actually open to certain generations and what are closed,” and not just for Jin and Ye.

“We’ve had different backgrounds,” Hong says to Chao, noting that she hasn’t been forced to endure things like surprise bikini scenes since her career in Hollywood blossomed just as it faced much-needed reckonings around diversity and sexual harassment. “I feel very, very fortunate to be in this generation and coming up in the industry literally at this moment. Because I’m coming in the wake of icons like Rosalind Chao and Sandra Oh and Michelle Yeoh. It’s not all me.”

Staff writer Wendy Lee contributed to this story.



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