Dylan O’Brien knows you want to know what happened to him.
Some people search his face for scars. Others ask the 26-year-old actor questions about the accident in 2016 that nearly cut short his career and could have ended his life. For more than a year, he was able to dodge that scrutiny and recover in private. Now, with a new movie coming out and a press tour required to promote it, things are different.
“I was anticipating this for a long time,” he says over lunch at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. “It used to really anger me, even just the thought of it. I just knew that eventually, I would have to be asked about this.”
He confesses these angry thoughts about as affably as any person could, as though he’s upset to even get upset. That doe-eyed decency has proved key to O’Brien’s screen appeal: In his breakthrough role as the lead of the Maze Runner franchise, he’s introduced in media res, thrust into a coliseum of YA terrors before we even learn who his character is. As he shakes and shivers and tries, alongside the audience, to make sense of his otherworldly predicament, you can’t help but root for him.
Not every actor can inspire that feeling in a viewer, but in O’Brien’s case, it’s so innate that the director of his new film, the action vehicle American Assassin, cast him simply after looking at his head shot. “I remember in that first discussion with my producers, names were being thrown around, and the one name I didn’t know yet was Dylan’s,” says Michael Cuesta. “I Googled him, I saw his picture, and I just said instinctively, ‘He’s right.’ There was an innocence and a vulnerability to him, and I hadn’t even seen his work yet. It’s an instinct you just have to trust.”
Cuesta wasn’t the only one besotted. At a time when Hollywood likes to import most of its young leading men from overseas — like Spider-Man’s Tom Holland, Star Wars breakout John Boyega, and an entire family of Hemsworths — The Maze Runner established O’Brien as a rare homegrown movie star. His profile grew ever larger while he shot the sequels to The Maze Runner and neared the end of his time on the MTV series Teen Wolf, and as work began on the third and final Maze Runner film, O’Brien started to look ahead to the future.
And then, just days into shooting that sequel, O’Brien was seriously injured in a stunt gone wrong. Pulled from one vehicle, he was reportedly struck by another, leaving him with a concussion, facial fracture, and brain trauma among his injuries. Production shut down for several weeks, then indefinitely. O’Brien withdrew from public view during his recovery as rumors flew that he might not return to the film. Half a year went by as O’Brien tried to heal and, at the lowest point in his life, mulled whether he wanted to continue his career at all. “I really was in a dark place there for a while and it wasn’t an easy journey back,” says O’Brien. “There was a time there where I didn’t know if I would ever do it again … and that thought scared me, too.”
Now, though, he is ready to talk about it.
“In a lot of ways, those six months went by like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. “And then, in a lot of ways, I can still remember that six months as if it was five years of my life.”
Ask most young actresses when they wanted to become a movie star, and it won’t even be a question: They’ve been planning for it their whole lives. Kristen Stewart has been acting since she was a preteen, and at 14, Emma Stone put together a PowerPoint presentation to convince her parents to move to Los Angeles so she could go on auditions. But young American men seem come to acting differently — or indifferently. Channing Tatum was a model and dancer who happened into commercials before becoming a movie star. Chris Pratt happily toiled in obscurity as a Bubba Gump waiter in Hawaii when he was convinced by a customer to act in her film.
O’Brien’s foray into the industry was similarly unplanned. His parents had the expertise — O’Brien’s mother taught an acting class, while his father moved the family to California when O’Brien was 12 so he could pursue work as a camera operator — but in high school, he played drums in a jazz band instead of signing up for drama class. Like many of his classmates, though, O’Brien had a habit of posting videos to YouTube. They’re still there today: Check out his user page at “moviekidd826” and you can watch all 14 of his short comic sketches. Some of them are fairly simple, like his too-enthusiastic lip sync to the Spice Girls song “Wannabe,” and one of the uploaded clips is a teen staple, the video he made to ask a girl to prom.
Still, the shorts are clever and surprisingly narrative-driven, and O’Brien is a deft comic performer in all of them. He wouldn’t have thought of what he was doing as acting — he was just being himself, after all. But it’s exactly that unvarnished quality that made him so appealing, and as the videos began to circulate, he was signed by a woman who is still his manager today. Soon enough, he was being sent out to audition for projects like Valentine’s Day and Wizards of Waverly Place.
He hadn’t grown up knowing that he wanted to be an actor, but give O’Brien some credit: Once he figured that out, he committed hard. “My first semester of college, I’m going to sociology and English and psychology and all I cared about was getting home and preparing for whatever audition I had,” he says. “I’d be on IMDb looking at projects in development that I’d be right for and I’d send them to my manager and be like, ‘What’s going on with this?’” His ambition often outstripped his experience. “I was obsessed with having one of those auditions finally work out, and I was very impatient,” he recalls, laughing. “My manager would be like, ‘You have to understand, this could take years.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no, I’m going to get one of these.’”
Only a few months after his high-school graduation, that’s exactly what happened. O’Brien was cast on Teen Wolf, a fledgling MTV series based on the campy 1980s movie. This version skewed darker and filled its cast with hunks, with the howls meant to come from the audience each time a sexy werewolf stripped off his shirt. It was a notable hit for MTV, and though O’Brien was cast as the human best friend — not as the protagonist, Scott, or as any of the eye-candy beasts on the show — the role was a good fit for his boy-next-door charm. He wasn’t just Scott’s friend. He felt like yours, too.
“That show really became my school in a lot of ways,” says O’Brien. “I never took a second on set for granted. Even on my first day on the pilot, when my work finished for the day but then they were going to this other location to shoot another scene, I just went with them.” As a cable show, Teen Wolf filmed only five months out of the year, so O’Brien had plenty of time to hop on to other projects: He took Zooey Deschanel’s virginity in a New Girl flashback and popped up on the big screen in films like the teen romance The First Time and the Vince Vaughn–Owen Wilson comedy The Internship. “I would want to get on as many sets as I could,” he said. “And I was still very much ambitious about being in movies, too.”
In 2013, the year after The Hunger Games hit big, O’Brien was cast as the lead in another book-to-film YA franchise, The Maze Runner. The rare $100 million hit toplined by a young actor under 25, it propelled O’Brien onto studio short lists and led to more work in bigger movies, including Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon and a Maze Runner sequel, The Scorch Trials. 20th Century Fox picked up an action comedy with O’Brien attached, a sign of his growing clout, and as Cuesta looked for someone to play black-ops recruit Mitch Rapp in American Assassin, based on a popular book series by the late Vince Flynn, he alighted on O’Brien.
“He looks like a boy next door, like my son’s older friends,” says Cuesta. “Like a young man who has one foot in that postadolescent place and is about to cross over into adulthood and take that rite of passage.”
In March 2016, just as O’Brien headed to Vancouver to film Maze Runner: The Death Cure, he committed to star in American Assassin, which would represent his biggest break so far from youth-driven fare. He planned to film that after wrapping The Death Cure, squeeze in some time to shoot Teen Wolf’s farewell season, and move on to the movies that studios had been setting up for him.
“To see him blossom in his career and see what he was taking on, it was amazing to watch,” says O’Brien’s father, Patrick. “And then to see that broken … it was hard.”
O’Brien would rather not relive the particulars of his accident. “There’s really been one or two people who have tried to dig and find out what happened and I cut it off,” he says. “And I’m comfortable with where I draw the line.”
What’s known is that after that stunt on the set of The Death Cure went awry and production shut down on March 18, 2016, the studio planned to resume filming May 9, hoping to still make the film’s set February 2017 release date. Weeks later, though, it was clear that O’Brien’s injuries were so serious that filming could not begin again.
“I had lost a lot of function, just in my daily routine,” says O’Brien. “I wasn’t even at a point where I felt like I could handle social situations, let alone showing up and being responsible for work every day. Long hours on set, delivering a performance and carrying a movie … it just makes your palms sweat.”
O’Brien calls his recovery process “overwhelming,” though the biggest toll the accident took on him was psychological. Even if he could find his way back to the sense of stability he had before the accident, and even if those scars could heal, would he still want to return to the high-flying movie career he’d worked so hard to set up? After it all went away, he couldn’t even be sure he was the same person anymore.
“And then there was a part of me, too, that was feeling pressured and stressed out by the mere fact that I had all of these people still emailing me, checking in,” he says. “I would get so fucking mad. Like if ever I heard from a producer [who was] seeing when I’d be able to get back on set, I’d fucking go nuts. It would really, really piss me off.”
But as O’Brien recovered in private, rumors flew that his injuries were much more extensive than was reported, and the people behind the projects O’Brien had set up were forced to weigh their options. Cuesta didn’t want to recast American Assassin, but he also didn’t know what state his star was in. During his recovery, O’Brien had not communicated with the production in four months.
“I didn’t want to let it go, and I also had this really interesting, deeper connection to this character over the course of those four months because of what I was going through,” says O’Brien. American Assassin begins with a freak tragedy, as Rapp’s fiancée is gunned down by terrorists during a beach vacation and dies in his arms. Lost in a rabbit hole of grief, Rapp spends the next few months weaponizing his anger and decides to hunt down her killers himself. “I felt like I could portray that and wanted to be the one to do that justice — it was almost like an honor for me at that point,” O’Brien says. “But at the same time, I was still in such a fragile personal state that I had this other force telling me, like, ‘No fucking way’ that I can do it. ‘This is too soon, too soon. Tell them to leave me alone, I need more time.’”
Unfortunately, the film didn’t have much time to spare. If American Assassin didn’t go into production before a certain date, the film rights would revert back to Flynn’s estate, and if O’Brien still wanted to play Rapp, he’d have to spend two months getting into physical shape for the role. It was a daunting regimen of learning fight choreography and adding muscle to his frame that would take a lot of work for any actor, let alone one who was still reeling from his physical nadir. “I knew it wouldn’t be getting back on the horse in a light way,” says O’Brien.
And so, at the end of July, he recommitted to American Assassin. It was a signal to the industry that he wanted to work again, even if, privately, he still wondered if he’d be able to make it through. On the one hand, the time O’Brien spent in the gym with action coordinator Roger Yuan gave him something that he could focus on during those long days. But even as he grew physically stronger, O’Brien was still struggling with heavy emotional and psychological episodes during his recovery.
“Sometimes I’d literally show up at the gym having a panic attack, and my trainer would be like, ‘All right, let’s just go get breakfast,’” says O’Brien, who came to treat Yuan almost like a therapist. “I can’t give enough credit to him … he was really there for me, and not just like a trainer where it’s like, ‘Well, come on, man, I gotta pump you up.’ He cared more about my mind and the state that I was in.”
Near the end of their training, O’Brien was in the best physical shape he’d ever been, an unlikely development given the events of the last few months. But despite all that training to become Mitch Rapp, O’Brien’s anxiety only grew as the start date drew near. The day he was supposed to fly to London to prepare to film the movie, O’Brien had what he describes as an emotional breakdown in the airport. With his father and girlfriend Britt Robertson by his side, he questioned whether he could continue.
“I didn’t even think they’d let me on the plane, to be honest,” he says. “I must have looked high or something.” O’Brien’s father, who had planned to spend the first few weeks in London getting his son acclimated, proved to be the rock he needed in that moment. “I don’t think I would have been able to step onto the plane without him,” says O’Brien.
“That was a tough year for us,” says his father Patrick. “It was hard to see him like that … he’s such a special kid.” Patrick had never set foot on one of Dylan’s sets before — “I thought it was important to let it be his life and not be mine” — but on the first day Dylan shot American Assassin, he knew he had to be there. “It was mind-blowing,” says Patrick. “I was watching him from the monitors, and he was busting out 50 push-ups in between takes.”
It was all for a wordless sequence where we catch up with Mitch months after his fiancée’s death, watching him train and harden himself in his dark apartment. As O’Brien walloped on a punching bag and bust out dozens of pull-ups, the intensity was like nothing Patrick had seen from his son before: “Obviously, I’m getting concerned. I’m watching the monitors and I’m seeing the stress he’s putting on his body and his face and all the places that have been of some concern of late.”
When Cuesta called “cut,” Patrick walked past the first assistant director and up to Dylan. “I was almost nose to nose with him, and I’m not sure he saw me right away. He was in it, as much as you can be in it. And I said, ‘Dylan?’ He looked at me and kind of focused. And I said, ‘Are you okay?’ And he said, ‘I’m good.’”
“If he didn’t have the accident,” says Cuesta, “would he have connected that well with Mitch? I don’t know, but it definitely brought truth to it.”
O’Brien acknowledges that, too. “I’d just been through a lot that summer and the fact that you spend all this time not even knowing if you can do that again …” He pauses, and swallows. “Even right now, it’s just kind of hard to talk about.”
It helps, he says, that Patrick came aboard for the rest of the shoot as a camera operator, staying by his side when he needed him most. With his father there, he could be fearless. “I would just think about where I was at psychologically in June and July, how insurmountable the task seemed to me,” says O’Brien. “And then just to be there on the last day knowing that I did it, with my dad there at my side, it was just a really, really great feeling.”
“He’s in a good place now,” says Patrick. “And nothing makes a parent happier.”
O’Brien doesn’t sugarcoat his recovery. Sitting in front of me at lunch, he looks every inch the movie star he was before: hair tousled, eyes bright, his face covered only by stubble. He is candid about what it took to get to this point, though, and even after filming American Assassin, the question remained: Was he ready to finish Maze Runner: The Death Cure, putting to bed the series that had given him so much and taken plenty, too?
“Nothing inside of you wants to go back to that,” O’Brien admits. “It took a lot of deep searching past those gut instincts that I was having just because of the trauma that I experienced to realize that I did want to finish it.”
Did he consider asking the studio to move on without him? “I wouldn’t have been ultimately happy with that, I don’t think. In the moment, it would have been a temporary relief because I would have run from it, but it would have always stuck with me a little bit … I knew it was going to be really hard, harder than Assassin probably, but [I thought] if I got through that, I can get through this, and I think I’ll come out of the other side being really happy that I did it. And I did.”
He resumed filming The Death Cure in March, which is now set for release in January 2018. His father followed him to South Africa, where the movie was shot, and was made a co-producer on the film; O’Brien now counts it among his best experiences on a project. He even found time to return to the final season of Teen Wolf, which had written around his absence while he recovered. The series finale of that show will air on September 24, and soon enough, every obligation O’Brien had set before his accident will be behind him.
“Coming out of the other side of all this is basically a whole new chapter, and I think I will be going about it differently,” he says. “I’m excited to have more balance going forward. Like, I’m not somebody I don’t think who’s going to do three or four movies a year and feel like I have to constantly pump them out. I think there’s something to be said about pacing yourself.”
In the meantime, he’s bought his first house, which gives him a little stability in an uncertain industry. He recently threw a party there to celebrate his 26th birthday — “It turned into more of a rager than I intended it to be,” he laughs — and an hour into it, O’Brien and his friends were already jumping off the roof into his pool. It’s a future that he could not have imagined just a year and a half ago.
“I’m excited to see what comes my way, see what I’m interested in next, and just see what happens,” says O’Brien. After Teen Wolf and The Maze Runner conclude, it’s wide-open space. “It’s the first time that I’ll be operating in my career without those two roles, really.”
He thinks about it and smiles. “It’s good, though, to not have that safety net.”