Playing an IRL Criminal in a Beloved Story of Hope and Zero Judgement: Bryan Brown Talks 'Boy Swallows Universe'

The Australian acting icon is the Netflix series' Slim Halliday — and his character isn't merely a figment of author Trent Dalton's imagination.

Sarah Ward
January 15, 2024

There's a difference between embracing the fantastical and making fantasy. As a book since 2018, then a stage production and now a seven-part Netflix series, Boy Swallows Universe knows how to fly in the first direction without becoming the second. Author and journalist Trent Dalton spins a semi-autobiographical 80s-set story, which surveys his childhood and its challenges with clear eyes, but also brims with hope and zero judgement. That's protagonist Eli Bell's (Felix Cameron, Penguin Bloom) approach to everything, including his recovering addict mother Frankie (Phoebe Tonkin, Babylon), his heroin-dealing stepfather Lyle Orlik (Travis Fimmel, Black Snow), his alcoholic and agoraphobic dad Robert (Simon BakerLimbo), and his elder brother Gus (Lee Tiger Halley, The Heights), who hasn't spoken since a traumatic incident in the siblings' past.

It's also how he sees family friend, babysitter, father figure, and no-nonsense but supportive source of wisdom Slim Halliday, as played by Australian acting icon Bryan Brown in Boy Swallows Universe's leap to the screen. The character is one of Dalton's great inclusions and, as with much in the novel, doesn't merely stem from Dalton's imagination. The name, that he spent decades in the Queensland capital's Boggo Road Gaol for the death of a taxi driver, his multiple escapes from the notorious prison: they're all 100-percent real. So is the fact that the young Dalton knew the convicted murderer when he was a boy growing up in Brisbane's west.

Casting Brown is like most talent choices in Boy Swallows Universe: a dream pick. Chatting with Concrete Playground about the part and the Brisbane-made series, he's full of praise about Cameron as 12-year-old force-of-nature Eli. "He's a fabulous young kid and he's done a fabulous job," he advises. But Brown's own inclusion, like Tonkin, Fimmel, Baker, Halley, Totally Completely Fine's Zac Burgess as the older Eli, Talk to Me's Sophie Wilde's as Caitlyn Spies and more, is just as pitch-perfect. To Eli, Slim is a man with answers, encouragement and no sugarcoating — someone who believes in him, wants the best for him, but won't skip over life's realities. Try to picture an Aussie actor who'd nail the role and Brown is alone in springing to mind.

Boy Swallows Universe joins his almost five-decade-long resume, at a time when Brown jokes that "someone asking me to do a job now is quite a good thing". In the past five months, he's been on-screen almost constantly — in fellow streaming series C*A*U*G*H*T, the recut of Baz Luhrmann's Australia as miniseries Faraway Downs and in US-produced but Sydney-shot rom-com Anyone But You. His career has followed the same path since the mid-70s, and reads like a history of Aussie film and television. For both 1980's Breaker Morant and 1999's Two Hands, he has Best Supporting Actor Australian Film Institute Awards. In the latter as with Boy Swallows Universe, he was paired with up-and-comer: there, it was Heath Ledger.

Jono Searle/Getty Images for Netflix

Brown's credits also span The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Newsfront, The Shiralee, Dirty Deeds, Beautiful Kate, Red Dog: True Blue and Sweet Country. The list goes on. Over in Hollywood in the 80s, after TV's A Town Like Alice was a hit overseas as well as at home, he earned Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for The Thorn Birds, led action-thriller F/X, famously mixed drinks with Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One) in Cocktail and starred opposite Sigourney Weaver (The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart) in Gorillas in the Mist. In 2004, he featured in the Ben Stiller (Locked Down)-led Along Came Polly as well.

With Boy Swallows Universe, Brown was drawn in as everyone who has come across it in any form has been: by the story. Initially introduced via screenwriter John Collee's (Hotel Mumbai) scripts, he found it as astonishing as readers, theatre patrons and viewers keep doing. The series that results is now streaming — and we spoke with Brown about his first responses to Dalton's tale, his eagerness to play Slim, taking on someone with layers both on the page and in reality, mentoring Cameron, why everyone loves Boy Swallows Universe and more.

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ON BROWN'S FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH THE BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE STORY

"The scripts. I hadn't read the book, and the producer Troy Lum (Palm Beach) sent me John Collee's — at that stage — eight one-hour scripts, and I thought they were quite wonderful, the scripts. 

That then led me to go get the book and read the book, and to thoroughly enjoy it and go 'this is a remarkable story this', given it was basically true.

And so to be able to be a part of it, I was only too willing."

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ON WHAT APPEALED TO BROWN ABOUT PLAYING SLIM HALLIDAY

"I think the fact that he was a crim, but we don't meet him doing anything criminal. We hear about what a crim he was, and how he'd been in jail for 30 years and how he'd escaped, but we see him as someone that really wants to help the boys not go the way that he did. 

So I think it's the fact that he's not as you would expect him to be. When someone says 'I've got a part for you to play, it's a crim, love you to do it' — [but] basically I'm babysitter in this."

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ON HOW TO PREPARE FOR A PART THAT ISN'T JUST A CHARACTER IN TRENT DALTON'S BOOK, BUT A REAL-LIFE PERSON

"Basically I can only play the scripts. So if there's something missing in the scripts, then I go 'this conflicts with something else, I need to know more about it'. 

But the scripts were so well done, the character was so well-outlined, the relationship with the boy was so clear and it felt quite instinctive to be able to play — I didn't have to research his criminal activity. None of that came into the playing of this piece. 

So it was about trying to understand why he wanted to be with the boy and behave as he did, and pretty well the scenes answered that for me."

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ON PLAYING SLIM AS NO-NONSENSE BUT SUPPORTIVE, AND A FATHER FIGURE FOR ELI

"Once again, I come back to how well something's written. If a character is written well, you're just pulling the glove on and getting on with it. 

It's where something comes into conflict or it doesn't make sense that you're at sixes and sevens in trying to play something. But this was so well-written on the page that I was able to play it pretty easily. It was a part that was enjoyable to play."

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ON HOW BROWN SEEES THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SLIM AND ELI

"I guess it is a bit father-son, but it's better than that. It's like he doesn't have to be the parent and exercise certain disciplines — he just has to be there as someone that appreciates and would always be there for the boy. 

And just that knowledge that he gives to the boy, there is someone solid here that believes in me, that's the relationship that I think that Slim brings."

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ON HOW THAT MENTORING RELATIONSHIP TRANSLATED WITH FELIX CAMERON OFF-SCREEN

"People would probably say it did. We got on very well. We had a lot of fun together. He's a cheeky little bugger, and I really enjoyed mucking around with him. 

But behind all that there's a very bright young fella — and there's a fella who, obviously he's got wonderful parents. There's a boy that appreciates pretty well everything that's going on here. 

He appreciated doing this. It never went to his head in any way. I'm sure there were areas of confusion for him, but he never brought that to the table."

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ON WHY BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE CONTINUES TO STRIKE SUCH A CHORD

"I think it is a story of hope. The boys want and hope that their life will be better, and do everything — they don't judge their parents, there's no judgement in this show about people, but there is the boys who just see that there's a life out there, and hope that they can have a life that's different to the ones that their parents are experiencing.

I think that there's a joy in that. It's not a dour story. It's not a dark story. There's darkness in things that happen with the characters, but it's not a dark story. 

It's a story of hope and desire from the boys to have a real life, and I think you can't help but get affected by it."

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Chris Hyde/Getty Images for Netflix

ON WHAT BROWN LOOKS FOR A ROLE

"It's pretty easy. I read it. I go 'do I like the story?'. If I don't like the story, there's no point even thinking about the part. And if I do like the story, then I look at the character and I go 'how does this character contribute to the story?' and 'can I do something of value with that character that makes that story live?'.

It's pretty straightforward. I know pretty well straight away if I don't want to something. But if I'm a bit intrigued, then I have to ask myself more questions as I go through it.

Once again, it's instinct. I look at it and I go: 'am I there? Can I be there?'. And if I can, the other side of it is, I like to know who else is doing it, and I like to know who the production company is and who the director will be to make me feel confident about that it can be done well."

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Boy Swallows Universe streams via Netflix, arriving on Thursday, January 11, 2024. Read our review.

Images: courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

Published on January 15, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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