Four years ago, when Queensland writer and journalist Dalton published his debut novel, Boy Swallows Universe, it became an overnight worldwide success story.

The semi-autographical tale became the fastest-selling debut novel in Australia since Nielsen BookScan records began, snapping up pretty much every literary award along the way. By 2020, it had sold more than 500,000 copies across all formats in Australia.

Enter Netflix

With 221 million paid memberships in more than 190 countries, streaming giant Netflix – which bought the rights to the book because of its universal appeal – has unveiled its Australian cast and first images from the shoot for an eight-part limited series.

Speaking to The New Daily from Brisbane, Dalton, who is an executive producer on set, says the past six months of production have been “surreal, bizarre, a full-circle wondrous thing”.

“Every month my wife and I would receive an update from Hollywood about what extraordinary actor next has just signed on as the very real people in my life who inspired all the characters in the book and who I really love,” he says.

“My wife and I would high-five every time a new name would come up.

“All these beautiful stars came into my universe. It is huge to me. I am a film and TV geek, so it’s incredible to be part of pop culture in this way now.”

Acting royalty joins the cast

For those few who didn’t get round to reading the book or discussing it at weekly book club meets, Boy Swallows Universe follows a young boy growing up in Brisbane in the 1980s. The official synopsis from publishers HarperCollins describes it as a story of “brotherhood, true love and friendships”.

Eli Bell and his family – including stepfather Lyle Orlik – as well as their friends and enemies are based on Dalton’s own family and influences on his childhood.

The Netflix series has garnered some acting royalty for its key roles, including Travis Fimmel (Vikings, Warcraft, Raised by Wolves) as Orlik, Simon Baker (The Mentalist, Breath, High Ground) as Robert Bell, and Phoebe Tonkin (Babylon, Kid Snow, Transfusion, Westworld) as Frances Bell.

The roles of young Eli and brother Gus Bell will be played by Felix Cameron (Penguin Bloom) and Lee Halley (The Heights, Featherweight, Crazy Fun Park), respectively.

A number of Australian acting legends round out the cast in the form of Bryan Brown (Cocktail, Breaker Morant, Two Hands and Palm Beach), Anthony LaPaglia (Nitram, Florida Man, Without a Trace) and Sophie Wilde (You Don’t Know Me, The F–k It Bucket, The Portable Door, Tom Jones).

“To have that cast of adult actors – I’ve not seen a collection of brilliant Australian actors for quite some time that is that strong,” says Dalton, a journalist of 17 years who currently writes for The Australian newspaper and Weekend Magazine. “There’s five to six that are incredible and are pillars of the acting form.”

A musical version of the book made its world premiere last year at the opening of the Brisbane Festival and became Queensland Theatre’s best-selling show ever.

Westworld‘s Phoebe Tonkin as Frances Bell in Boy Swallows Universe. Photo: Netflix

Why Dalton wrote Boy Swallows Universe

As executive producer, Dalton says the house re-created for the series has been completed with ‘‘love and dedication’’, with directors tapping into his mindset along the way.

“[They’ll] call me up and ask what does something mean, as the book has a lot of double meanings. And it’s my chance to go deep, like how children deal with trauma, how we find love in unlikely places,” he says.

“I see myself as trying to pump the tyres of every last cast and crew member on set because I love them all dearly. Trying to bring the spirit to it all.”

Dalton has nothing but praise for 13-year-old Victorian actor Cameron, who plays Eli, describing him as “an old soul in a young body”.

“We kept talking about finding a young River Phoenix, with that young, raw, pure heart… I always saw Eli Bell in the book, this fragile soul who is so deep and has so much to give, carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders.

“‘They found this kid. You meet him in person, he’s a beauty… it was a pleasure to meet him. He was fun, funny, absolutely aware of where the story goes and what he has to bring.

“It’s all told through his eyes. It’s a massive role. He’s killing it. He is amazing on screen. I fell in love with him and I think the world will, too.”

This article was first published on The New Daily.


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