Why Simon Baker Was Immediately Drawn to ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

Simon Baker in Boy Swallows Universe

When globally renowned actor and Emmy nominee, Simon Baker, first heard about a series adaptation of Trent Dalton’s semi-autobiographical book, “Boy Swallows Universe”, he was immediately interested in playing a part. 

“My Mum actually said something to me, she’d read the book in book club, and she said, ‘I think you would really enjoy it.’ And then I read it and really did,” Baker recalls to Variety Australia from Brisbane.

Like many other readers of Dalton’s debut novel, Baker had a visceral reaction when he first read the book. It was this response, combined with a meeting with the author himself, that sowed the seeds for his participation in the series. “Trent’s got a particular style that it’s easy to read. He goes to pretty serious places, but he goes there with humour and he goes there with this sort of optimism and hope,” Baker says.

Boy Swallows Universe” follows Eli Bell (Felix Cameron), a 12-year-old boy who tries to navigate growing up among and in the environment of Brisbane’s criminal underworld in the 1980s. Appearing alongside Baker in supporting roles are a host of major Australian names, including Phoebe Tonkin, Travis Fimmel, Anthony LaPaglia, Bryan Brown, and Deborah Mailman.

In the series, an almost unrecognisable Baker gives an intense, committed performance as Robert Bell, the alcoholic father of Eli and his older brother Gus (played by Lee Tiger Halley). One of the things that most attracted Baker to the part, he says, was that Robert was an unusually “complicated character,” who had a complexity that he could sink his teeth into as a performer.

“He’s definitely not a romantic hero, but there’s a long way between a fuck up and a romantic hero. There’s a lot of variation in there, but he is a fun character to play because he is so extreme in his self-abuse and his sort of inability to exist and function out in the real world, which makes him a pretty eccentric character to play, which is great fun.”

During filming, Dalton gave Baker several bits of helpful advice on capturing the essence of Robert, but the author was never overbearing. “In many ways, just to know that he [Dalton] was there, if I had any queries or doubts, and that at any time I could talk to him [helped me]. He was incredibly [open]. But he was also just so enthusiastic about seeing aspects of the book come to life and obviously, aspects of his own life, come to the screen.

“I think there’s an understanding between the two of us, that possibly we’ve both grown up in circumstances that have made us both a certain way.”

While Baker became one of Australia’s most high-profile actors with his roles in US series “The Mentalist” (2008-15) and “The Guardian” (2001-2004), in recent years he has starred in a string of smaller budgeted Australian projects.

In 2020, Baker starred in Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s feature, “High Ground”, and two years later he appeared in Del Kathryn Barton’s debut feature, “Blaze”. He also starred in Ivan Sen’s outback mystery, “Limbo” (2023). Before those roles, Baker made his feature directorial debut in 2017, with a WA-shot adaptation of the Tim Winton novel, “Breath”.

He says his decision to pivot to Australian projects has been a conscious one. 

“I reached a certain level of commercial success through a television show in America that didn’t fulfill me completely creatively. It fulfilled me in a lot of other ways, but creatively it was really challenging for me to feel inspired by what I was doing. And I felt a draw back to Australia. I felt that draw back here deep in the pit of my stomach.

“I started making choices about what I did from my gut and what I felt I could do with the success that I had to help get these things onto screens,” he adds. 

Image: Simon Baker in ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ Credit: Netflix

Baker believes Australia has an untapped abundance of stories and directors. “I do believe that there are incredibly interesting stories that exist in our country, that haven’t been told. There are so many complicated aspects of what our society is now in this country and where this country has come from. I’m a big advocate of truth telling.”

He says government regulations aimed at encouraging streamers like Netflix to focus on local content are key to more shows like “Boy Swallows Universe” being made. “I think [having] laws in place to regulate the streamers so that they have to invest into Australian production is a very good thing”. 

And Baker believes “Boy Swallows Universe” has the potential to become a global hit. 

“I commend Netflix for actually digging into their pockets and putting some money behind an Australian production and taking a bet on it. Because it takes a lot of these streamers to take a risk and make a bet [to have an impact].  

“If it works, then more [big streamers] will do it. And we have a deep and rich pool of crew talent in this country. And that’s [how] an industry can grow.”

That’s why Baker says he is determined to continue to champion Australian stories.

“I think there is an enormous well and wealth of incredible stories, Indigenous stories, in this country, that we largely overlook”.  

“Boy Swallows Universe” is on Netflix now.