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Interview: Phoebe Tonkin on 'Boy Swallows Universe'.

Interview: Phoebe Tonkin on 'Boy Swallows Universe'.

The events that transpire in 'Boy Swallows Universe' are so chaotic that many may doubt that it’s pulled from a true story that was actually lived by someone. But the story is true — lifted directly from the beloved 2018 Australian book penned by Trent Dalton. It’s a book that is loosely inspired by Dalton’s own childhood and what he experienced and became a fixture in the Australian zeitgeist. Set in 1980s Brisbane, 'Boy Swallows Universe' orbits around 12-year-old Eli Bell who comes of age while navigating things no child should have to face — whether it’s seeing his parents struggle with addiction and drug dealing, domestic violence, and bullying. Although the story itself is bleak and, at times, difficult to watch, it’s a much-needed story about a working-class family trying their best to stay afloat. 

Much of the story’s optimism is found in the character of Eli Bell who dreams of a universe where he can get his mother, Frankie, away from the environment that is plaguing them. There are moments where he goes to great lengths to protect her, sometimes without thinking of the consequences, just to make sure his biggest fear — losing her to another addiction-ridden cycle — doesn’t come true. With that, though, brings a profound and powerful connection between Eli and Frankie. Even with its sprawling story that dances between light and dark, there is seemingly always magic to be found in a coming-of-age story.

Portraying Frankie is actress Phoebe Tonkin who doesn’t just give an emotional performance as a struggling mother of two boys desperate to give them a better life, but genuinely makes you physically ache alongside her. Her performance shows the intricacies of trauma and the ripple effect it has on a family while also bringing levity and optimism amid dark moments. In episode one, audiences see Frankie as a recovering addict juxtaposed with scenes of her locked in a room by Eli’s stepfather as she’s forced to wean herself off of drugs. To prepare for the role, Tonkin devoured whatever she could that centred on those with addiction. Although it was mostly to flesh out the character of Frankie, she was adamant on authentically portraying those who experienced addiction, aiming to avoid creating a 2D caricature. 

“There was so much to draw from with this project,” explains Tonkin. “We had Trent’s beautiful book and the script is such a beautiful adaptation of it. Then, on top of that, I wanted to explore not just the addiction side, but the recovery side. That is where we see Frankie a lot in this show and I wanted to honour and acknowledge the difficulty that in addiction cases, it’s not just the person that is addicted but the people around them. At the end of the day, Frankie is just trying to do the best that she can. She's trying to be the best mother that she can be to her sons, who she just loves so much.”

Although audiences mostly see Frankie as she’s in recovery, jumping between the two mindsets — the version of her in the middle of addiction and the one where she’s drug-free — wasn’t something Tonkin struggled with. “Even though there were some really hard scenes in the show, the majority of it was really positive and joyful,” she says. “I was just talking to Travis [Fimmel, who plays Frankie’s partner Lyle Orlik] about filming that scene in the bedroom. In that scene, Frankie is so immersed in the world and the pain she’s going through. When I watched the scene back and got to see the reactions of my kids and Lyle's reaction, it was really heartbreaking and quite confronting to watch.”

By immersing themselves in the 'Boy Swallows Universe' world, it meant that regardless of what was happening and the mental state of the character, every scene was integral to the overall story. In particular, Tonkin felt that scenes like the one where Frankie is locked in a room weren’t any harder or easier than the ones spent “sitting around the kitchen table.” She notes that John Kelly, who wrote the script, did so in such a way that felt grounded and truthful, making her job easy because it wasn't hard to dive into whatever her character was feeling and explore. 

As part of her character study, Tonkin was given the chance to speak with Dalton’s mother. It was an experience that was just as special to him as it was to Tonkin. Although not explicitly stated, motherhood is a thread that ties the show together. When Frankie is unable to look after her two boys due to a spoiler-related event, audiences see the extent in which she longs for her sons and vice versa. It’s why Dalton told Tonkin that the only thing she really needed to know about his mother is that she loves her boys “more than life itself.”

“I’m not a mother in real life, but funnily enough I’ve played a lot of mothers over the last few years. I got to spend a lot of time with Felix and Lee and we had a really organic relationship. I love these kids, I love them in real life, so our relationship felt natural. They were just such wonderful professional actors, I would forget that they were not kids because they were just so prepared. There were some scenes where I would be taken aback at how good Felix was that I'd have to be like, ‘Phoebe, you're in the scene!’ because his performance is just so powerful, especially for someone that young to understand those really deep feelings of pain and trauma that he has to experience in the show.”

As Tonkin looks ahead, she knows the character of Frankie, the 'Boy Swallows' universe, and what she’s learned about the impact it has on families, are things that are going to stay with her for the rest of her life. “I think between the book and then my research, I came out of this show with this beautiful perspective on the hardships of life and what people have to deal with,” she states. “I listened to so many beautiful podcasts with people who had exposed their souls and delved into the hardships of addiction, not just for themselves, but for their loved ones, their family members. All of those hardships create the fabric of your life and all those things lead to growth and learning.”

'Boy Swallows Universe' is out now on Netflix - watch the trailer below...

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