3 Body Problem Cast Take Us Behind The Scenes Of Netflix Hit

David Benioff and D. B. Weiss won the Best Drama Series Emmy four times for Game Of Thrones – so it may come as a surprise that, when the creators started the process of adapting expansive sci-fi novel The Three Body Problem for Netflix as their big follow-up series, they relied a lot on Wikipedia to help create characters.

“I thought this character resembled me a bit too much”, star Benedict Wong told Zavvi. “So I called them out on it – and that’s when I found out that when they cast me, they just went over my Wikipedia page and suddenly, this character from the books was born in Salford!”

Wong stars here as Clarence “Da” Shi, a curmudgeonly detective investigating a strange, seemingly unrelated string of suicides within the scientific community. Soon, he’s crossing paths with the Oxford Five, a group of former classmates who all discover a personal connection with a surreal curse, which can only be defeated if they choose to cease their research.

Several cast members embarked upon intensive scientific research to get into character, which Wong is grateful he never needed to do. Instead, he’s joked that to play the Mancunian detective, he looked at “Columbo and Liam Gallagher” as performance touchstones.

He explained: “I played an astrophysicist on a previous job, but thankfully, my part of the show is the unfurling of murders and threats – I didn’t need to learn anything scientific for this! My character is a counter-terrorist operative, so I tracked down an agent I could talk to, and what I found interesting was that when I asked if they had a name for an existential threat like the one in this show, they immediately said “that’s a top-tier 3”.

“The fact they have a category for something like this really helped build the reality for me, as much as being in a surveillance car, which is really glamorous. There’s no going to the toilet if you’re on the job, the car is the toilet, so I was given a bottle with a bit of cordial in it, which you can see in the show!”

Shi works for the mysterious Thomas Wade, the head of the elite intelligence operation looking into the strange deaths of scientists. He’s played by Thrones alum Liam Cunningham, and couldn’t be further from his fan favourite character Davos Seaworth; and when you find out this character was also reshaped in the image of the actor playing him, you may worry that Cunningham has a darker side to his cuddly public persona.

“When we weren’t filming on Thrones, we spent a lot of time hanging around together, so when these scripts came through, I found it weird that these guys seemed to know me better than I knew myself! Like all the best artists, they’re incredible observers, but I need to stress – they may adapt our personality traits, but not our behaviours!

“As actors, we tend to hide behind the ski masks of characters, so it’s weird to play someone who, in certain ways, is unnervingly close to who I am.”

For Cunningham, starring in the series was “an immediate yes before I was even told what the project was!” – but finding out he’d be playing a more complicated character this time sealed the deal, as he’d been itching to play someone “horrible” for years.

“Davos was such a delight, who had a moral compass and could form wonderful relationships, so it was nice to play someone who would want nothing to do with that! It’s the best type of character to play; a single-minded guy who does morally questionable things to achieve results.

“You need guys like this in your corner, even when you don’t agree with them; they’re unflappable, and they know how to strategise and execute plans properly!”

Another Thrones alum taking centre stage within the ensemble is John Bradley – who you likely know best for his role there as Samwell Tarly – who plays Jack Rooney, the only one of the Oxford Five who has left academia behind. Instead, he’s a multi-millionaire after founding his own snacks company, which we learn are responsible for Britain’s third best-selling crisps (after Walkers Cheese & Onion and Monster Munch, naturally).

He’s the comic relief of the core group, but as with the character he played in Benioff & Weiss’ previous series, there’s far more depth to him than initially meets the eyes.

Bradley told Zavvi: “They told me about the character before they even told me what show he was going to be a part of. They just told me they’d written someone more similar to who I am than any other character I’ve played before, and I didn’t need to know more than that – they write to people’s strengths in that way.

“What struck me about Jack is that he isn’t obsessed with science like the others; it’s something he’s naturally good at, he got to Oxford after all, but he didn’t really care about it. As soon as he found a money making idea, he abandoned science entirely, and went for the big bucks – he’s the people’s champ!

“I think that’s what sets him apart from the rest of the group really – he’s always going to be defined by his working class background, and whilst he thinks academia is fine in and of itself, he’s always been looking for a better life. People might think of this as materialistic, but it is incredibly valid, and him having that remove from the science world has stopped the rest of the Oxford Five getting too serious and wrapped up in their work, I think.”

Bradley spent his entire time on Thrones assuming he’d be killed off, only to wind up making it to the end – but in the early episodes of 3 Body Problem, Benioff & Weiss give him the death scenes he never got there, as he’s killed multiple times in a virtual reality video game that’s mysteriously linked to the strange scientist curse.

“One thing they’ve always done great is shock deaths, so of course they’d jump at the excuse to kill off characters multiple times”, Bradley continued. “When making Thrones, I saw lots of people accuse them of only killing off characters people cared about – which I thought was absolutely charming when they didn’t kill me off.

“Although, I think with Sam, his death would be absolutely underwhelming. He’d probably have a cardiac arrest, or trip and fall into a banister.”

Jack’s best friend is Will Downing, played by Tony-winner Alex Sharp, who has the most grounded arc of the Oxford Five – and the most heart wrenching. The actor told Zavvi that, after reading the script for the first time, he realised he had a responsibility of helping to ground the show, so viewers could buy into the high concept drama elsewhere.

“I felt like what Will’s going through was representative of what humanity as a singular organism is going through with the existential threat put onto them and so it was quite interesting to approach him like that. But I’d try not to approach it in that way – I’d send myself nuts if I was consciously trying to play a symbol of humanity!

“He has the simplest story, which can be the scariest thing to portray as an actor. This is a guy facing his end, and facing up to loving a woman immeasurably, and how he changes through his reactions to these challenges.”

The woman he loves is Jin Cheng, played by newcomer Jess Hong, a genius theoretical physicist who ends up working with Jack to uncover the mysteries of the virtual reality game they’ve received.

Unlike her fellow cast members – Bradley noted that he could “study physics for 10 years and not understand a word” – Hong felt a responsibility to try to understand the science of the show as well as her character could.

She told Zavvi: “I had a lot of monologues about science, so I wanted to, at the very least, try to understand what it was I was actually saying. As well as listening to podcasts and reading books, I went to Oxford University for a day with our physics consultant, and I got to spend time working with student physicists – and, as well as discovering they’re smarter than I’ll ever be, the most important thing I found was just how normal they were.

“They may know how to explore and communicate big ideas, but at the end of the day, they’ll be going down the pub just like anybody else. I realised that understanding molecules and string theory would just be a bonus – expressing Jin’s intentions was the most important thing.”

After several rounds of casting over Zoom from New Zealand, the character was once again rewritten in the image of the actor cast to play them, which is where Hong discovered a trait she didn’t even realise she had.

“I’m better at analysing characters than I am at analysing myself, and I know that they like including little moments and mannerisms to add texture to their characters and make them feel as real as possible. After our first Zoom call, the first scripts I got back, I realised that my character now said the word “buddy” a lot – I wondered why they included this, and they told me I say it all the time, I’d never even noticed!

“They’re so great at marrying who the characters are in the books, to the personality of the actors playing them. It’s a really lovely artistic dialogue.”

The character most faithfully adapted is that of Ye Wenjie, who we’re introduced to in 1966, witnessing her father’s death in the midst of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Her passion for astrophysics is the chronological starting point of a story that unfolds decades later, with the character appearing in two different timelines.

Actress Zine Tseng, who played the younger version of Ye, shot her scenes long before Rosalind Chao – who plays her in the present day – stepped foot on set.

“When we first met, she told me that she felt like she knew me for years”, Tseng told Zavvi. “My response was “that’s great – I only know you from films though!”

“It was amazing to see her build a fully rounded performance just out of seeing my footage; it’s not just that she mimicked the way I walked or talked, or could channel my accent, but you could see her mind process in the same way.”

As with Thrones, 3 Body Problem aims to get audiences to question who they’re rooting for throughout, thriving in the moral grey area where nobody is a hero or a villain, and it goes without saying, no actor approached their roles in such a binary manner of thinking. For a complicated character like Ye Wenjie, this approach was vital.

“I want the audience to let go of the idea of a character being right or wrong, it’s too complicated. If you see this character as a villain, I want you to let go of that, and challenge yourself to empathise with her.”

If you’ve already binged the show, you’ll know that discussing ever-shifting character allegiances in greater depths will spoil the impact the twists and turns can have – and as you’ll already know from Benioff & Weiss’ previous hit series, putting yourself in the shoes of bad people is all part of the fun.

3 Body Problem is now streaming on Netflix.

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Alistair Ryder

Alistair Ryder

Contributing Writer

Alistair is a culture journalist and lover of bad puns from Leeds. A regular writer for Film Inquiry and The Digital Fix, his work has also been found at the BFI, British GQ, Digital Spy, Little White Lies and more. Subject yourself to his bad tweets by following him on Twitter @YesItsAlistair.