After breaking out as Stiles on MTV’s Teen Wolf — the first major role of his career — Dylan O’Brien seemed poised to launch into a rocketing film career when he landed the lead role in the young adult sci-fi film franchise The Maze Runner. But while filming the third and final entry in the series, The Death Cure, in March 2016, O’Brien was seriously injured after he was thrown from one vehicle and hit by another during an action sequence. Suffering from severe — but fortunately not life-threatening — wounds around his head and upper body, O’Brien needed close to six months to recover.
But recover he did, restarting his film work with a role in last year’s Deepwater Horizon and taking the lead in the new American Assassin, based on the popular series of books by the late Vince Flynn (who died of cancer in 2013) revolving around CIA counter-terrorism agent Mitch Rapp. Although American Assassin was the 11th novel in the series, it provides an origin story for Rapp that also works as a starting point for the series on film and for O’Brien as the character. When the personal aftermath of a terrorist attack leads Rapp to enlist with the CIA, he finds himself training with black ops specialist Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) and tracking a rogue terrorist who’s intent on starting a world war.
Although filming on The Death Cure was pushed back by nearly a year to allow O’Brien time to heal, he did also return to complete that franchise as well, with the movie now scheduled to arrive in January 2018. Den of Geek had a chance to sit down with O’Brien during the press day for American Assassin, where he spoke about playing the popular Rapp, working with Michael Keaton, coming back from his trauma and finishing The Death Cure.
Den of Geek: What did you know about this series, this character? Were you familiar with it at all?
Dylan O’Brien: I wasn’t, no. Not until it was put in front of me. The script was the first thing I’d read of the story basically. But then I obviously did my research and looked up the books, looked up Vince and saw that this was the 11th installment, I think. It was a prequel that he had then put out as an origin story and that’s where they were starting the franchise from. That was the first time I became familiar at all with it.
What kind of books do you like to read normally, when you read?
Typically baseball books. But no, anything anyone recommends me. My dad reads a lot and he’ll always recommend me a good one. I’ll always be reading a good book. I don’t have like specific genre tastes or anything or things that I kind of get hooked on, reading genre books or anything like that. It’s just really anything anyone kind of recommends or is going around or I hear is good.
Did you know that Flynn had passed away a few years ago?
Oh yeah, that was awful, too, when I found that out. It was really sad to hear and it was so recent too and he was so young. I was both really happy and honored to be doing something like that for him and his family. Also, incredibly nervous, too. You hope that if he were around he’d absolutely approve of what you did. I’ve gotten to know his wife well on this project, too. She’s been a part of things and she’s been amazing. She’s an incredible person. I can only imagine what a great guy he was.
It makes me really happy that his project was finally able to get on its feet as a movie. I’m really happy to be a part of that and I just hope his wife Lisa likes it.
By doing the origin story, you have a chance to kind of form the character on screen. Did you worry about preconceptions or how he’s supposed to be in the other books?
For me it was all about just tapping into this origin. That was one of my favorite things about the project, when I first heard about it and read it. I really liked the idea of getting to finally seeing one of these operatives and these assassins and where they came from. I just don’t think we see that a lot. Also, where he came from was also really compelling to me, and really emotional and really strong. I thought that was something interesting too that we haven’t necessarily seen, and also something that’s pretty current right now too, with the unfortunate terror that we’re sort of dealing with universally, all over the world, right now.
The idea that this story could stem from something current and something so emotional, and see a guy kind of get set on this path from this inciting incident — I just think there’s something really powerful about that, and also real. You find out that a lot of these guys, when you meet or talk them, are driven to do that by something in their lives, some kind of trauma or tragedy. So, I thought that was like … It became more of an important story to tell, in my mind.
Did you talk to a lot of CIA guys?
A couple of them. We had one primary advisor on the film who was ex-CIA, ex-Navy Seal. He’s an incredible dude, he’s been doing it for years and he’s retired now. I picked his brain about everything, you know, and the stories that he’s told me, the things he’s been through, the things he’s been involved with, I mean, he just … You’d be blown away. It’s just amazing the life that this guy lived, you know, and the things that he’s seen.
It really makes it all real for you, makes you at the end of the day want to do more justice to it then you ever could, really, with the film. You want to honor them, these guys, as much as you can, be as authentic as you can. You know, at the end of the day it’s still a movie and you couldn’t always do that but you want to be able to pay them as much respect as you can because these guys are the real deal, and they’re out protecting us every day. And to understand actually what they go through every day is just mind blowing.
Did he ever tell you one thing that freaked you out a little bit or scared you or changed your view of the world a little bit?
No, nothing like that. It was mostly things about how they trained and the things that they try to drill into you, you know. Just things I don’t think I’d ever survive. It’s amazing that anyone, let alone so many people, are capable of doing that and that’s the reason they get chosen and they make it through these intense and lengthy training courses.
We see a fictionalized version of that in the movie with the Stan Hurley character played by Michael Keaton.
Michael’s great. He’s everything you’d want Michael Keaton to be. You always have the nightmare of, you know, working with the guy that you’ve just admired forever and then he’s just totally disengaged and awful to be around. Michael’s just the opposite, he’s a dream to meet and work with, and to see how he operates. Just like such a normal, laid back, smart guy. He’s had a great career and a really great life, he’s really close with his family and son. Yeah, I really admire the guy.
Your fight trainer on this, Roger Juan, was a key person for you.
Yeah, he’s become one of my closest friends. That guy’s amazing. This whole process of the movie started with me and Roger, you know. It was really just us first in L.A. training for the first eight weeks. I couldn’t be more grateful to that guy. Both just as a friend and my trainer on the movie. He was very instrumental in the process of me getting going on this, because it was a really tough time for me too, you know. I was going through a lot at the time and he just couldn’t have been more understanding about that stuff, helped me get through it if ever I was having some kind of tough day, or if I showed up to gym in some sort of state, you know. We would talk and would just pull me out of it sometimes.
You look great, I’m glad to see that you seem like you’re doing okay —
Thanks man, thanks, really.
Coming out of that horrific experience and starting to make movies again, did that feel like getting back on the horse to you? And did that come full circle when you came back to finish the Maze Runner series?
I mean yeah, absolutely, man. It was a big full circle for me. It was a really long journey. This last year and a half has absolutely been the most difficult time I’ve ever gone through in my life. It was a really scary experience jumping back on the horse in general and then also an entirely different one tackling that exact beast too, you know, and facing that one. But I couldn’t feel better about it all now. Truly, I feel so much more weightless than I have in the last year and a half by a large margin. I’m really glad that I was able to do it and push through ’cause it was the right thing to do.
It was also the best thing for me to be able to put it away on a really positive note. (Maze Runner) was something that meant a lot to me too, because it was also really a franchise that I love so much, and it was an experience that I always loved so much and it really got tainted for a while. So it was really good to get back and finish it. It was a very long and challenging journey, but I couldn’t feel better about it all now. I’m glad I got it done, and again, just able to finish it on a positive note. It was great.
What would you say to fans about The Death Cure?
I think we made something great, you know. I hope we did, that was the goal. We really wanted to finish it strong. I feel like we had a really strong template to start with. I feel like we had a really strong crew out there too in South Africa. We were all so close on that too, so I think it meant something to everybody and everybody wanted to really give it everything they had for the last go. It’s going to be an emotional one, man.
American Assassin is out in theaters this Friday (September 15).