Dylan O’Brien: “I was in this transitional phase – close to a quarter-life crisis”

From YA heartthrob to legitimate leading man – how the 'Maze Runner' star hit his stride after a whirlwind decade

“Definitely!” hoots Dylan O’Brien when NME asks if he still has to audition. “I’m not Tom fucking Hanks, bro.” He’s clearly amused by our question, but forgive us for thinking the 29-year-old actor gets cast on reputation alone. A decade into his career, and he’s making an impressive transition from teen TV star and YA franchise hero to charismatic leading man.

New York-born O’Brien cut his teeth on MTV’s hit Teen Wolf series, before landing the lead in the Maze Runner film trilogy based on James Dashner’s hugely popular novels. Leading a band of bright young things that included ex-Skins tearaway Kaya Scodelario, Game Of ThronesThomas Brodie-Sangster and Will Poulter, he honed his craft while racking up nearly a billion dollars at the box office. “My career is a constant acting class,” says O’Brien. “To be able to do the Maze Runner movies simultaneously with Teen Wolf was amazing in terms of getting in reps and working my [acting] muscle.”

Dylan O'Brien
CREDIT: Getty

Now for the sometimes tricky bit. Many actors struggle with the post-breakout period, but O’Brien is making it look easy so far. This year’s Netflix hit Love and Monsters proved he can carry an old-school family adventure, and new film Flashback (out next week) reveals an appetite for weirder, more cerebral work. He stars as Fred Fitzell, a young man reluctant to buckle down to life as a nine-to-fiver with a boring corporate job and a long-term girlfriend (Mindhunter‘s Hannah Gross). When he runs into a freaky-looking acquaintance from his teenage years, Fred becomes obsessed with finding an old high-school friend he used to drop a mind-bending experimental drug called Mercury with. It’s difficult to say any more without entering spoiler territory, but Flashback is a wild ride underpinned by the idea that we can exist in several realities at once. Even if you follow every plot twist, you might not fully understand the end. “Oh, it’s definitely a headfuck,” O’Brien agrees. “There’s not totally an answer to figure out. There’s a lot of different things that people can take from it.”

Speaking over Zoom from his LA home, O’Brien is bright, thoughtful and really good fun to talk to, especially when he relaxes into the interview, but he clearly knows where his line between public and private lies. When he first read the Flashback script, written by the film’s director Christopher MacBride, his “mind was blown” by just how much he related to Fred. “I felt like I was in this transitional phase of my life that was, you know, sort of close to a quarter-life crisis type thing,” he says. “For whatever reason, it was like me and this script were meant to be. I remember reading it and thinking: ‘I am this guy right now.'”

“There were a lot of things in my personal life that were neglected for a while”

When we ask why O’Brien felt as though he had reached a “transitional phase”, he gives an answer that’s vague but not exactly evasive. For understandable reasons, he doesn’t mention the incredibly traumatic stunt accident he sustained while shooting the final Maze Runner film in March 2016. O’Brien suffered severe trauma to the brain and said in 2017 that he underwent extensive facial reconstructive surgery after the accident “broke most of the right side of my face”. Tellingly, he’s never really revealed what happened on set or how it affected him.

Today, O’Brien won’t mention the details of the accident and other issues he was dealing with at the time, but doesn’t shy away from discussing his inner conflict. “You know, it was a lot of personal things combined with at-a-point-in-my-career things,” he says after a brief pause. He says he’d have been going through some of this stuff anyway, simply because of his age, but it sounds as though success intensified it all. “It was like this whole fucking storm of shit,” he continues. “I was simultaneously so fulfilled and happy about these, like, otherworldly and surreal things that I had experienced in terms of where my career had brought me. I had all this confidence and fulfilment and beautiful people [in my life] – such amazing things to experience at a young age. But at the same time, there were a lot of things in my personal life that were unchecked and sort of neglected for a while.”

Dylan O'Brien
O’Brien in new psycho-thriller ‘Flashback’. CREDIT: Vertigo Releasing

O’Brien says that in time, he realised he had to “stop for a second” and “re-explore how I wanted my life to look going forward”. In fairness, you can see why he needed a breather: his career took off while he was still a teenager. After his family moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles County when he was 12, O’Brien contemplated a career as a sports broadcaster – his Twitter bio still bills him as a “no longer suffering Mets fan” – then began posting YouTube videos as moviekidd826. A funny, slickly edited skit titled ‘How to Prepare for the SAT in 45 seconds’, shared when he was just 17, shows he was a born performer and storyteller. YouTube success led to him getting a manager, but his breakthrough role in Teen Wolf still came out of the blue. At the time, he was treading water at a local community college and taking auditions on the side.

Still, he has since taken a rather fatalistic view of this career-making moment. “It’s totally weird because, when I think about it now, I don’t see how it could have happened any other way. I can’t picture myself doing anything else now,” he told Collider in 2011. “It was really sudden and a little random, and not provoked by anything. It was just out of nowhere. It wasn’t my intentional doing.” Today, O’Brien summarises his skyscraper career trajectory succinctly. “I guess I just graduated high school and started acting,” he says. “And then I felt like I was just flying by the seat of my pants and never got a chance to stop.” Thankfully, straight-out-the-blocks Hollywood success hasn’t taken away his sense of perspective. When I say how easy social media makes it to compare yourself unfavourably to others, O’Brien jumps in: “Yeah, that’s very true. I was watching the Billie Eilish doc the other day, and I was like, I’ve done nothing. I’m not an artist at all!”

“No one thought ‘Love and Monsters’ was going to be good!”

O’Brien is also self-deprecating when he talks about being cast in Flashback, suggesting it happened because he had such an intense connection with Fred. “I was honestly like, ‘Who is watching me right now?’ That is the best way I can describe how I was feeling when I came across this script,” he says. “Chris [MacBride, director] and I had this conversation that went so well in terms of [my] understanding this script that I think he’d sent around a lot and [that] very commonly wasn’t understood. I think Chris has even said that the night before shooting, he suddenly had this thought, like, ‘Wait, do I even think he’s a good actor?'”

Though O’Brien has firmly ring-fenced elements of his private life, he’s actually pretty frank about his acting vehicles. He readily admits he was expecting a snobbish response to Love and Monsters, a CGI-heavy hybrid of post-apocalyptic action and romcom that dropped on Netflix in April and topped the streamer’s daily most-watched list. “It means so much that Love and Monsters has gotten the response that it’s gotten,” O’Brien says. “No one thought this movie was going to be good.” His blunt honesty makes me laugh out loud. “No one did though!” he says in response. “And so, fuck that. You know, most of the people who say something to me about the movie, they’re like: ‘I watched Love and Monsters, and it was… good?’ And honestly, that just cracks me up.” For obvious reasons, we hastily decide not to share our response to the film – namely, that it was a whole lot better than expected.

Love and Monsters
Surprise Netflix hit ‘Love and Monsters’. CREDIT: Netflix

In Love and Monsters, O’Brien plays Joel, a survivor of a so-called “monsterpocalypse” that has bumped humans to the bottom of the food chain. Though he’s known in his colony as a bit of a coward, Joel sets off on a treacherous 80-mile journey to find his high school sweetheart Aimee (Iron Fist‘s Jessica Henwick), which means evading the hungry clutches of various supersize grizzlies including a giant monster-frog hiding in a suburban pond. It’s a simple but pretty out-there premise that wouldn’t work if O’Brien’s performance was even slightly condescending. Instead, his unselfconscious sincerity really sells a film that has as much in common with the family-oriented Robin Williams movie Night at the Museum as darker fare like The Walking Dead.

His obvious affection for the project really comes across during our interview today. “When I read the script, I just thought it was so sweet and funny and smart and unique, but at the same time reminiscent of all these movies that don’t really get made any more,” he says. That’s a fair point: Love and Monsters is neither a fail-safe superhero movie nor a slice of classy Oscar bait. “And when they were talking about how to market this movie, it was so funny hearing all these conversations like, ‘How do we actually get people to watch it?'” he adds. “But that’s a big part of the reason I wanted to do this movie: because it felt like something I missed seeing.”

“I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who want to make something out of love”

So in a way, Love and Monsters was a risk for an actor seeking to establish himself outside of a bankable movie franchise and a hit TV show. O’Brien has only made four films since his final Maze Runner outing in 2018, and insists he hasn’t been tactical with his choices. “I don’t have anyone saying, ‘We need to get you in an Oscar vehicle’, or any of that kind of shit,” he says. “I’m really lucky to be surrounded by people who think like me: that you should do what you’re drawn to, and make something out of love.”

He’s recently finished shooting a mysterious crime thriller called The Outfit in London with Mark Rylance. Directed and co-written by Graham Moore, who won an Oscar for his screenplay to Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, O’Brien calls it “quite possibly one of the most special pieces of writing I’ve ever experienced”. He first read the script on a plane and says he “actually stood up and clapped” when he got to the end. Considering O’Brien probably wasn’t flying Ryanair, this reaction presumably attracted a few baffled glances.

Dylan O'Brien
Dylan O’Brien in the blockbuster franchise that made his name – ‘The Maze Runner’. CREDIT: Alamy

Anyway, it must be pretty intimidating walking onto set with Rylance, a multi-award-winning actor revered by his peers – Al Pacino once said he “speaks Shakespeare as if it was written for him the night before” – but it sounds as though O’Brien took it all in stride. He says he’s confident in his abilities, but admits to having a slight wobble whenever he begins a new project. “I’m always sort of re-questioning everything – like, ‘Can I even act?'” he says. “But I think there’s something very natural about that. I think even Rylance could relate to that feeling. Acting is like starting a new year at school every single time.”

At this point in his career, O’Brien has made peace with the fact that some people will have preconceptions about him based on what he’s known for: Maze Runner and Teen Wolf. “People will put you in a box no matter what,” he says. “There was definitely a time when that would get to me, especially when it felt like somebody had a perspective on me that in my soul, I just felt wasn’t accurate.” Still, there’s no doubt he wants to show us what’s really in his soul with more films like Flashback. “If anything,” he adds bullishly, “it just makes me think: ‘Right, I’m really gonna show them now’.”

‘Flashback’ is out on digital platforms from June 4