The Year's Most Unexpected Action Hero
How a lonely childhood, cheeky YouTube videos, and a supernatural TV series prepared Dylan O’Brien to star in September’s big budget movie adventure.
As 4,000 screaming fans fixed their gaze on a microphone in the middle of San Diego Comic-Con's cavernous Ballroom 20, a young girl approached and cleared her throat.
"Hi! I love you, Dylan O'Brien," she excitedly exclaimed, already fighting back tears. "Aw, you're so cute," replied O'Brien and, with a single compliment, unwittingly triggered a full-blown emotional meltdown: The girl's knees buckled, her entire body trembled, and her hysterical crying could not be stopped.
"Are you OK?" O'Brien asked, genuinely concerned, as she repeated, "Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God," through a mask of endless tears.
These kinds of uncontrollable breakdowns, reserved only for the biggest stars in the world, have become increasingly common in O'Brien's life because, for the two million fans who religiously tune into Teen Wolf every week, that's exactly what he is: a superstar.
Since its launch in June 2011, MTV's supernatural werewolf drama has grown to be the network's signature series and landed O'Brien on the cover of every teen magazine, and netted him nearly two million Twitter followers as well as an endless stream of Tumblr shrines. In recent seasons, his performance as Stiles Stilinski, the wisecracking best friend to Tyler Posey's titular werewolf, has evolved beyond simple comedic relief, revealing a much more complex, nuanced, and capable actor.
O'Brien is now attempting to parlay his television and internet popularity into box office success with the Sept. 19 release of action film The Maze Runner, an adaptation of James Dashner's 2009 dystopian young adult novel revolving around a mysterious maze and its reluctant inhabitants.
20th Century Fox, the studio behind Maze Runner, is betting big on O'Brien. Pre-production on a sequel — based on Dasher's The Scorch Trials — has already commenced in New Mexico and O'Brien is, essentially, the centerpiece of their omnipresent marketing campaign. The hope is clearly to mobilize his fans so that they come out in droves on opening weekend.
But as O'Brien sat back in his chair at Cipriani, located inside Beverly Hills hotel Mr. C's, one month after that girl broke down upon seeing him at Comic-Con, he almost seemed blissfully unaware of just how much is riding on his slender shoulders.
"I never thought about the size of the movie," the 23-year-old told BuzzFeed News, with a shrug. "Cut to a year later and the first question I'm getting from everyone is, So this movie is gonna blow up, what are you going to do? It never felt that way. It was an underdog script and an under-the-radar project with all relatively up-and-coming actors — we don't have anyone in the movie like Kate Winslet [Divergent] or Donald Sutherland or Phillip Seymour Hoffman [The Hunger Games]. So it always felt super small to us, but we always knew it could exist amongst those because it's so good."
O'Brien was quick to add that shrugging off industry expectations should not be mistaken for professional ignorance. In fact, he's incredibly fastidious — almost to a fault — of the material to which he exposes his young fan base, particularly on social media.
"I'm so careful of the things I say and so conscientious of my fans and who is following me on Twitter that I know I can't tweet about certain things, I know I can't talk about certain things, I know I can't say certain things," he said. "I feel like there are very few people whose personalities shine through Twitter. Mine couldn't be further from who I am. Every now and then I squeeze some of my humor through, but it's very held back and reserved because attention has always made me react that way. It's just how I'm wired. It doesn't mean I'm not grateful, it's actually because I really care about not letting people down."
O'Brien's innate need to please has been amplified by the sheer volume of fans he's amassed in just the last few years. "It blows me away," he said of the borderline-crazy level of adoration he's received ever since landing the role of Stiles. "In a way, I can never fully understand it because I don't know if I'm wired that way. But what makes me feel good about it is I'm bringing them happiness and that I can relate to."
He explained, "I loved movies so much as a kid because I moved cross country and I went through a hard time at school, having kids really make my life miserable for no reason. The one thing I would look forward to at the end of the day was going home to watch my TV shows. TV and movies would instill this happiness in me. So I totally get it. I was that kid too. I get genuinely touched by it sometimes because I can now give that to kids, and that's cool."
That aforementioned move in 2003, from New Jersey to California, not only made O'Brien the subject of many a bullies' wrath, but also intensified his introverted nature. "I was painfully, painfully shy," he said, without a hint of shame, about his childhood. "There were four or five years of not having any friends." Lacking anyone real to play with, O'Brien embraced his love for pop culture and began creating short films, most of which still exist online to this day.
"I never even thought about deleting them," he said with a sly smirk of the videos — one of which features O'Brien lip-synching to the Spice Girls — contradicting the knee-jerk reaction that overly image conscious celebrities have to their pre-fame online lives. "It's not like I keep them up because they're really good. Obviously, I look at those videos and cringe. But those videos were my life back then — and what started my career."
While O'Brien was solely creating for himself, the videos began to gain traction, both online and in the industry, becoming something of a calling card for the then 18-year-old.
"I remember that all he had on the back of his resume were two YouTube links," Teen Wolf executive producer Jeff Davis told BuzzFeed about O'Brien's first audition for Stiles in 2010. "He was funny and had this energy about him, this elasticity to his body and his movements. He really impressed us. That night, I went home and started watching his YouTube films. After that, he was the only person I could see playing Stiles."
The prevailing narrative about O'Brien's career — that he was, essentially, plucked from obscurity by MTV — is one the actor doesn't refute. In truth, he's grateful for the unusually quick path to becoming a working actor. "I think it was the best way for it to happen to me because I was filled with so much doubt as a kid," O'Brien said. "I never deemed this career truly possible in my mind, so being thrown into it really helped because it gave me a lot of confidence that this is something I am meant to do for the rest of my life."
For O'Brien, the MTV series turned out to be more than a professional launching pad; it also enrolled him in an unofficial acting school. "Classes are great, but I've never had to do them because I've been lucky enough to be working for the last three years," said the actor, who is not formally trained. "I just go off my gut and I honestly don't even know if I could do it any other way. I just feel like acting should just be as real and stripped down and human and raw as it can be. I sort of always liked that I'm a human first and an actor second."
This organic performance style not only captured the attention of Teen Wolf fans — instantly turning his sidekick character into, essentially, a co-lead — but also the directors who auditioned him for subsequent movie roles.
"Dylan came in; by 20 seconds into the audition, he was the frontrunner of everyone I'd seen for the part up to that point," writer/director Jon Kasdan wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News about casting O'Brien in 2012's The First Time, a Hughes-ian high school romantic comedy co-starring Britt Robertson. "Whatever that intangible thing is, that every actor in the world wants to have and almost none of them do, Dylan's got it."
While every Teen Wolf viewer knows of the charisma that Kasdan references, the lingering question remains: Will O'Brien's "it factor" be enough to turn The Maze Runner into an instant hit?
While the film features a handful of up-and-coming young actors (We're The Millers star Will Poulter, Game of Thrones' Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and Skins alum Kaya Scodelario), it's very much a star vehicle for O'Brien, who plays Thomas, the newest prisoner unleashed into the massive puzzle.
"I needed Thomas to come into the world as a scared and vulnerable kid, but leave a man," director Wes Ball told BuzzFeed News of his quest to cast an actor that could convincingly play Thomas at both ends of that all-important spectrum. "Dylan is this super sweet kid who just wants to work very hard. He's not afraid to expose himself or look weak. He's got confidence that's not bravado. That's what makes him the kind of hero I love: not a superhero, a regular person doing super things."
That duality was readily apparent to O'Brien and was one of the project's many attractions for him. "The first thing I noticed was that I felt really right for the role when I read the script," O'Brien said, fussing with his unruly hair. "I liked the way the story was told, I thought it was a cool concept, and then I met Wes, who blew me away. Basically that's when this movie turned into something I was vying for. Once I got it, I was realized I was so lucky."
Three defining characteristics repeatedly cropped up as Davis, Kasdan, and Ball spoke about O'Brien.
First: His endless enthusiasm. "His energy doesn't impress me so much as I envy it," Kasdan wrote. "It's boundless and youthful and exuberant and hilarious and … it infuses that movie with life and electricity."
Second: His utter lack of ego. "The unusual thing about Dylan is he's not at all vain or narcissistic," Kasdan added. "I mean, not AT ALL. Which, for an actor, is pretty unusual. He's just a nice, enthusiastic guy. He's quick to laugh and inclusive of everyone."
Third: His steadfast commitment to the work. "Dylan is someone who cares very deeply about the craft of acting," said Davis. "And, as is the way of passionate artists, he doesn't really care about fame. It's sort of a strange side effect to him. A lot of people come to Hollywood seeking fame, and they never find the depth of quality in their acting. Then there are others who simply experience fame as a side effect of their talent. And that's Dylan, he's focused on the craft."
For Ball, the union of O'Brien's energy, lack of ego, and unflappable dedication were the main reasons why filming on The Maze Runner was such a success. "It's hard for people to slack when you have Dylan — who just worked 14 hours — beat up and bruised, but still going at it the next day as hard as he did previously," the director said. "It was hard not to try and rise and support the kid. Everyone knew the movie was his burden so it was about rising to his level of involvement."
Knowing he would have to completely immerse himself in the character in order to ground the film's fantastical world, O'Brien looked to Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon, actors he's long considered professional and personal inspirations. "I look at them as heroes," he said. "I was a kid watching them and they've completely wired the way I work, because I didn't go to acting school. I go off of what I love and that's been ingrained in me just through their passion for their work."
That appreciation has grown into a true passion, according to his former and current bosses, who can't help but see shades of old-school Hollywood within O'Brien's work and personality.
"People always compare him to major movie stars, like Harrison Ford or Tom Hanks — and I agree," Ball said. Davis agreed: "I think he's like Tom Hanks; I see him going from comedy to drama. I think he may be more interested in drama right now because it's something that challenges him, and it scares him a little."
Kasdan took those sentiments one step further. "A guy who's genuinely funny and looks like that? It's the most valuable and scarce resource in Hollywood, because most movies are about young, white men. And there are maybe a dozen guys in the whole business that are those two things. Of any age. The best example right at the moment is obviously Chris Pratt, who is hilarious and looks like a leading man, and you can see what's happening with him. Dylan is one of those guys, so his potential is… pretty much limitless. What would be more surprising is if he didn't end up saving the world from an alien threat sometime in the next few years."
And while those kinds of big budget opportunities will likely come knocking, O'Brien remains committed to cultivating a very particular kind of career. "I'm someone who's drawn to projects that are not necessarily geared for success," he said, with a laugh. "I'm not into going after the project that all the agents are trying to get you to sign on to. I like making things that kind of come out of nowhere. I think that's cool and special and what I want to do in terms of my career."
But, in the end, the shy kid who endured years without friends may win out, as his deep-seated aversion to attention — the kind that particularly comes from headlining massive movie franchises — could fuel his choice to star in smaller, more personal projects.
"I'm very private and don't particularly thrive off being the center of attention," he said, ironically, as a throng of publicists encircled us, signaling the end of the interview. "Everyone I meet is like, 'You? Shy? Quit yanking me.' But I think people can work in ways [that] contradict how they are as a person. This is my job, this is what I do, and I'm so grateful. I love to do it and I feel good at it, but at the same time, it very much combats the person in me who is only comfortable with certain people. I still am, innately, a very shy person."