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The ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ Cast Told Us What Phoebe Tonkin And Simon Baker Are Really Like

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Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe took Australia by storm in 2018, racking up countless awards the following year, including Book Of The Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards. 

The novel is semi-autobiographical, telling the story of his turbulent childhood in 1980s Queensland with drug-addicted parents. Now, Hollywood has come knocking with a seven-part Netflix series based on Trent’s book. There are some massive Aussie stars set to bring the book to life along with some talented youngsters. 

The Devil Wears Prada’s Simon Baker is Robert Bell, H20’s Phoebe Tonkin is Frances Bell, iconic Aussie legend Bryan Brown is Slim Halliday and Vikings star Travis Fimmel is a scene stealer as Lyle Orlik. 

They say you should never meet your heroes, but for the two young actors playing Simon and Phoebe’s onscreen sons, Lee Tiger Halley as Gus Bell and Felix Cameron as Eli Bell, they couldn’t speak more highly of their castmates. 

“Pheobe [Tonkin is] just like, the warmest, most kindest soul. You don’t know how it’s gonna be when you meet someone, especially someone that popular. She was just the nicest,” Lee told Punkee. Felix added that the first time he saw Phoebe on set, she came running to him and told him how excited she was to work with him, which was “just so cool”. 

“And Simon was like an incredible actor as well, just mind-blowing,” Lee gushed. “I remember [watching Simon]… I learned a lot from that.” 

And when it came to the loose cannon that is Travis – better known as the man whose Calvin Klein billboard stopped traffic in London due to his, er, bulge size – he hasn’t let his Hollywood success go to his head. On his last day, he played an embarrassing prank on co-star Lee. 

The duo were buying food together before shooting a scene when Travis whipped out a water pistol. “He just sprayed me all around the pants,” Lee recalled. “I just looked at the costume department like, ‘Oh no!’, and then he left,” he laughed. “He was a prankster for sure but it was hilarious.” 

Felix Cameron from Boy Swallows Universe breaks down *that* gory scene. 

A mild spoiler alert from Episode 2 follows, so skip if you’ve yet to binge the first couple of episodes.

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t read Trent Dalton’s book before diving into the series, so I didn’t realise just how dark the show would get. When Eli, played by Felix, was begging a thug not to cut his finger off, I thought that there would be no way this would play out onscreen. 

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Felix Cameron and Phoebe Tonkin in Boy Swallows Universe. Image credit: Netflix, BSU

Well, I was wrong. Not only did the finger of a child get chopped off, but Felix’s performance felt so real. When I asked Felix about the scene, he was excited to let me know that he got to take the fake finger home as a souvenir.

“They chucked a fake finger on the top… and it feels really weird when you feel [it] coming off,” he said. “It was realistic [and] a bit scary… then they’ll say ‘Cut!’ and [the thug] would say, ‘Sorry, did that hurt you?’”

“I’ve actually got it on top of my chest of drawers at home… in a little plastic bag,” he added. 

What are the differences between Netflix’s Boy Swallows Universe and the book it’s based on?

Trent Dalton’s original novel is written from the perspective of 12-year-old Eli, essentially a younger version of himself. For the Netflix show, screenwriter John Collee was able to weave in other perspectives and “expand the mystery”.

“[You could] really flesh out this world and then also flesh out the fact that this story in real life took place in just a corner of the greater world of corruption that existed in Queensland,” Trent explained. “So we really have ramped that up.” Trent also believes the way the director told the story was “so powerful”, bringing out incredible performances from Felix and Lee. 

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Phoebe Tonkin in Boy Swallows Universe. Image credit: Netflix, BSU

He went on to add that John was able to essentially give his “mum and dad a second chance”, by rewriting their story. “Every now and then [I’d] imagine if [my parents] got back together. It’s so bizarre to see Phoebe and Simon absolutely capture emotionally my mum and dad. It’s incredibly surreal, but incredibly beautiful too.”

And when it comes down to the age-old debate of whether the book or TV adaptation is King? Trent is convinced that the Netflix show is better than his novel. 

You can decide for yourself and stream Boy Swallows Universe on Netflix on January 11, 2024. 

Image credits: Netflix, Boy Swallows Universe