'Your end is a dead blue wren.'
So goes the warning call of Boy Swallows Universe, the semi-autobiographical debut novel from the now-beloved Trent Dalton. It's one of the most talked about and wildly successful Australian novels in years. It's also one of my favourite books I've ever read and for a bibliophile like me, that's a big call. Set against the backdrop of 1980's Brisbane and following the escapades of the Bell brothers Eli and Gus, the story is equal parts crime thriller (as expected when your stepdad is embroiled in trouble with drug-dealing gangs and your babysitter is a convicted murderer) and a coming of age tale.
Now a televised version is coming to Netflix, and as someone who's had a sneak peek, I can tell you... fear not. Although book adaptations are a tricky business with something of a hit and miss ratio, this one sticks the landing in huge part thanks to a stellar cast including Bryan Brown, Phoebe Tonkin, and Deborah Mailman. I sat and stared into space for a good five minutes when I realised that Phoebe Tonkin, who first caught my eye as teenage mermaid Cleo in cult classic, H20 Just Add Water was now being given the part of someone's MUM.
I mean, I understand how calendars work but dear god, was my childhood that long ago? I digress... Aside from Phoebe who commands the screen as complicated chaotic matriarch Frankie Bell, (her screams in the opening minutes of the series chill to the bone), there are so many incredible performances in this show from a handful of young actors who I hope will be lighting up our screens for decades to come.
One such talent is the quietly shimmering Mille Donaldson who offers a poignant and powerful turn as the older version of Eli and Gus's friend and classmate, Shelly Huffman. Shelly is a role shared by Donaldson and the sweet Eloise Rothman who plays a younger version, steadily growing more disabled and unwell. By the time we see Donaldson on screen, Shelly has been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and is a wheelchair user, determined to be seen as more than an object of pity or a feel-good charity case.
This is Donaldson's first real role of note and as we chat over Zoom on a humid Thursday morning, birds chirping in the background, I can tell the 22-year-old can't quite believe her luck.
Although she doesn't have muscular dystrophy, Donaldson is disabled herself –she has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) It's a connective tissue disorder (there are 13 subtypes) that affects the body's ability to produce collagen, a protein found in connective tissue that acts as the 'glue' for your body. Without it, the tissue is too stretchy, resulting in everything from contortionist abilities to constant dislocations. Much like Cerebral Palsy, EDS is a vast spectrum of experiences. In Mille Donaldson's case, that looks like going through roughly 20 dislocations or more in a single day. Although its main symptoms are related to joint instability, hyper-stretchiness of the skin and easy bruising, EDS can have "a ripple effect, causing many other conditions, of which I am particularly blessed". Here, Donaldson smiles wryly in a way I recognise as the dark humour of the disabled community, the choice to view something painful as darkly hilarious lest you think about it too hard and find the tears don't stop.
The relief I felt when I realised Donaldson was a disabled actor getting to take control of a disabled character was immense. For too long, this has been the exception and not the rule, where able-bodied actors were and sometimes still are given opportunities that result in immense praise and awards to transform themselves into disabled characters – a phenomenon the disabled community calls "cripping up", initially coined by UK playwright Kaite O'Reily. To see Netflix actively working to change that trend from their position as one of the biggest stakeholders in the entertainment industry means more than I can articulate and is to me one of the biggest signs that change is coming.
When the casting call came through for wheelchair users to audition, Donaldson was only just beginning the process of learning to use a wheelchair as an ambulatory wheelchair user, which means she has the ability to stand, and walk for periods of time, not always needing the chair. Again, that dark humour; "Functionally, I can do a LOT. It's just that it causes pain and exhaustion", she says.
It's something she is still learning to balance and find the limits of. In fact some days, depending on her pain and fatigue levels plus her body's capabilities, she can pass as able-bodied, a fact she hopes to use to her advantage in the future to get cast for able-bodied roles. Her grin is conspiratorially wicked as she laughs, "They've been doing it to us for so long, I think it's only fair we do it too." I concur – let's steal some back.
The experiences of disabled actors on set can be a mixed bag, as everyone involved in the shoot adapts to the accommodations needed for us to do our jobs and give our best performances. But the joy Donaldson says she felt, describing her time in Boy Swallows Universe Land, is palpable. "It was a beautiful experience and gave me confidence in using a wheelchair", she says, explaining it's something she probably should have been using long before now. With fears that using a wheelchair would "tank her acting career" before it had ever really begun, Donaldson was delighted to discover the opposite experience; "I got my first job BECAUSE I was in a wheelchair!"
Feeling positive about the prospect of future acting, Mille Donaldson is a name I think we'll be hearing a lot in the future. With talent as a screenwriter, she's deep in the process of writing her own feature – the story of a chronically ill girl who dies and then is brought back to life against her will in a Frankenstein retelling that will no doubt challenge and captivate audiences.
For now, though, we all get the joy of witnessing her bloom "in the healthiest relationship on the show", we agree, a tender exploration of romance and meaningful connection on display between Shelly and Gus. I can't help but be struck by the lesson in the pairing – no matter the fantastical chaos and darkness erupting around us, the one true thing we can always hold onto is seeing each other as people and recognising our shared humanity.
All episodes of Boy Swallows Universe will be available to stream on Netflix January 11.