JJ Fong on Being Celeste Barber’s Bestie, Approaching 40 & Why She Looks Forward to Getting Older

Right now a brand new show – Wellmania – is about to drop on Netflix. So why should we be tuning in? Well 1) a key cast member is Kiwi (and wonderful human) JJ Fong, 2) she plays the best friend of none other than Celeste Barber (aka the greatest gift to Instagram) and 3) yes, it’s a comedy, which we could all do with a lot more of right now, no? Alice O’Connell chatted to JJ Fong about the show, her impending 40th birthday and why the acting game seems to have changed massively for women, for the better!

You will have seen JJ Fong’s name before, or you will have definitely seen her face. She’s been in a slew of shows – Go Girls, Flat3, Step Dave, Shortland Street, Power Rangers, Creamerie, and, even Celebrity Treasure Island. And now, JJ is on one seriously big and highly anticipated show: Netflix’s Wellmania, which stars one of the hottest properties of 2023, comedian Celeste Barber.

You’ll no doubt know of Celeste, but in case you need a reminder, here she is:

Yes, it’s THAT Celeste Barber – the Queen of Insta.

On Wellmania – which drops March 29 – Celeste plays Liv – a human tornado, who works in New York as a food critic/writer. But, on a whistle stop trip back home to Australia she has a major health crisis and has to rethink her ‘live fast die young’ attitude. Throwing herself body-first into a wellness journey, she tries everything from the benign to the bizarre in an attempt to get well quick, and reclaim her old life.

JJ plays Liv’s best friend, Amy Kwan, so we gave JJ a call to get the low-down on the show. Here goes!

First up, I have to say congrats JJ! I saw you just got married!!! How is newlywed life treating you?

Ha, I did!! Thank you! I do not know how that ended up in the paper though! Maybe someone got it from social or something? But yeah, thank you so much. It’s really exciting.

It is! Congrats again. Aaaand, congrats on the other big piece of news – the big debut of Wellmania. It’s such an exciting premise, andm far out, what a cast. I have to ask, what’s it like playing Celeste Barber’s best friend?

It is a ride. It is a wild ride! Celeste is amazing, she has a really big heart – she’s so kind. And she’s so talented! She’s an amazing improviser. And I just have so much fun with Celeste. I think we have a really great rapport – especially considering that we did our two chemistry tests via zoom, so I didn’t get to be in the room with her.

Far out! I’m surprised to hear that, because one of the things I wrote down about the show here was how strong the chemistry is between the two of you?

Oh really? Thank you. Yeah, it was because it was during lockdown and Covid and they couldn’t fly me over or anything. So I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s no way I’m going to get this role, because our chemistry read is happening over zoom. I can’t create chemistry like this?!’ But, I don’t know, it seemed to somehow work out! She’s just such a vulnerable actor – she’s very giving and I just felt like we had heaps of fun making it.

Amazing. I think a lot of us really just know her as the hilarious woman who makes epic little parody videos on Instagram, taking the mickey out of herself, and supermodels/influencers. But what’s she like in real life?

She is exactly what she is on her Instagram! What she portrays on Instagram and social – like, that is her in real life. She is completely that really loveable clown in reality – and I only use clown because that’s how she describes herself too!

What she puts out there is all her, and I think that’s why all her fans really relate to her, because she’s just herself.

I think the character of Liv is very, very much like her too, so it was perfect casting. But in saying that, she’s more than just the comedy – she can also do the drama and seriousness. Like, I know a lot of people know her as this Instagram star, but she actually started out as an actor. It was really interesting when she told me her story because she had to carve out this pathway as a comedian, because no one was casting her for acting roles. So, her career has really come full circle – she became big on Instagram, doing stand up, and through that she’s come back to what she’s good at, which is acting. She’s an amazing actress.

One of the things I really like about Wellmania is seeing women who are in their 40s and are actually played in such a fun way – the fact it’s this decade when you can still reinvent yourself, not have it all figured out, and also having some fun! As someone in their early 40s, I really appreciated seeing it. Now, I know it’s a couple of years away for you now, but what are your thoughts on turning 40?

Oh my, I actually look forward to getting older which, I don’t know whether many people say that, but I just feel like each year I get wiser and better and just let go of the little things a bit more. There are more things that I realise, it just doesn’t matter. But then, I also appreciate things more and I’m more grateful.

But, like you’re saying, we don’t see enough women in their 40s on screen, who are enjoying life, but who are also being quite messy as well. I really liked that about Liv Healy – she doesn’t have it all together. And then there’s Amy, who is so all together, but she has her shit as well. I think that’s why their friendship works so well.

Definitely. Now, I’m not giving away any spoilers here, because it happens very early on in the first episode, but your character has a very sensible 40th birthday party. It’s very sedate (apart from a coffee table being broken) and in the middle of the day. Do you have any thoughts on how you’ll celebrate yours?

Oh yeah, hers was very sensible. Mine is definitely not goint to be sensible! I’m just going to have a really big party and celebrate!

Amy’s sensible 40th birthday party (that is, until Liv arrived)

How would you describe your 30s? How has this decade treated you?

I feel like I have really come into my own, is how I would describe it. Like, my 20s was all about experimentation and I was really figuring out who I was. There was lots of dating and heartbreak. But my 30s has been the best!
I feel like also the career opportunities have been bigger and better as well – and I feel like I’m more prepared for it. Like, I’m glad that I didn’t land something like Wellmania while I was say, in my 20s, because I just don’t think I would have been ready for it, or appreciated it.

But now I love every role that I land and I’m just so grateful.

Is that something you expected? Because what I’ve often heard – well, what I used to hear a lot anyway – was that there was a real expiry date on acting for women. Like, once you hit a certain age, the roles disappeared or you were offered jobs playing a woman 20 years older or something ridiculous. So, has this come as a surprise that your career opportunities have only improved as you’ve aged?

Definitely! I honestly thought in my early 20s that by the time I got to my 20s it would feel over and wouldn’t know if I’d ever get anything. I’ve done lots in New Zealand and this is great, I love this, but I was still trying to get a foot overseas. So for it to happen now, has been surprising, but amazing.

I mean, at the same time, I feel like I’m going to back myself here and say that I do deserve it – I worked really hard!

YES! Good for you. It’s such a New Zealand thing to stand back and say, ‘oh, it’s nothing,’ or ‘I just got really lucky’, but you worked darn hard to get where you are.

Thanks, yes! And I’m not saying that’s all it takes, because there are so many actors out there that work just as hard. So, there is a bit of luck and timing to it – whether you’re the right fit or have the right chemistry for the role. There is that element to it. But I think it’s like when these opportunities are presented to me, I’m like, okay, am I prepared for this? I want to always be prepared to seize those opportunities.

I love that. There’s some luck involved, but you’re also creating your own luck. Okay, another thing I was thinking about Wellmania, is how well timed it is, in terms of what is happening in that whole wellness/lifestyle/life balance place. Covid-19 really turned everything on its head and led a lot of people to reevaluate how they were living their lives, and what success, happiness and health actually look like. I mean, Liv takes it to the extreme with some of the things she tries in a quest to get healthy in a hurry though. Have you ever tried any of the kinds of treatments she has? Any of those more holistic treatments?

Yes! I’m not super into it, but last year I did have an Ayurvedic massage. And you know what? It was nice?

Oooh, okay, what happens in that one? Is it the one where they drip hot oil onto your forehead??

That’s it! So, I only really ever get sports massages, because the goal is to just fix something when I’m sore from working out, or whatever it is. So, I’ve never had anything like it, but, at the end of last year I was filming season 2 of Creamery. My charater Jamie, she was going through a very dark time – she loses her child and her husband – and I basically had to hold that for a good two months, being in this quite traumatized state.

By the end of the shoot, I was like, my God I don’t think a sports massage is going to do it. I have to find something else. And that’s never happened before, because most of the characters I play are quite comedic and jolly. But Jennifer Ward Lealand – who is also an actress – was our intimacy coordinator on set and she recommended this woman who does Ayurvedic massage and sees lots of actors. It was like a massage, but with some reiki and the oil dripping. At first, I was really skeptical – especially with the reiki and the odd breathing and stuff. But then, she was dripping the oil onto my forehead and massaging it into my hair. And I just lost it. I started crying. It was this massive release. I didn’t really believe in that stuff, but I think I needed something that was more than just a massage relaxing me externally, I needed something to get to the internal, emotional part. I walked out and felt like something had been lifted from me.

Far out, that must have been such a weight to be carrying for two months. Was there anything else you did during that time to try to ease that pain, or differentiate it from what was happening in your own life? I can imagine that your body doesn’t understand that what you’re going through is just make believe – it must really feel the strain of acting out those emotions.

Definitely. When I got home each night I just tried to not talk to my partner and decompress on my own and have my own space. When you’re shooting it’s really busy and there are people talking to you all the time, so when it got hard, I tried to just have some time for me, and go to bed early – and not look at my phone and start scrolling!

My God that is easier said than done! Ok, we are nearly out of time dammit – so to finish up, how are things looking for you for the rest of this year? Do you have any goals to nail by the end of it?

I really just want to keep on building on what I’m doing and build my profile over in Australia and continuing to work over there, because I really do enjoy it. I love it. They’re quite similar to Kiwis – but they’re not as cool (sorry, sorry guys!). But they’ve made some great work over there and there are lots of opportunities at the moment, so that’s my biggest goal!

Thank you JJ – good luck and we love you!!

Wellmania is available to stream at Netflix from March 29

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