By any measure a clean slate, Dylan O’Brien’s character Thomas in the adaptation of the YA hit novel The Maze Runner wakes up in a forested glade with no idea who he is or how he got there.
It might be reminiscent of O’Brien’s career – after bursting onto the scene thanks to his role in TV’s 2011 Teen Wolf reboot, the 23 year old must have been wondering how he reached such heights.
But he’s branching out across film and TV, and he recently sat down to talk about the role of the amnesiac hero of a dystopian future world where the maze might not be want it seems, and where his character might be the only one with the cojones to see what lies beyond it.
What did you like about the character and script?
I genuinely fell in love with the story. It was cool, really fresh and really smart. I love how it unfolds throughout, that’s a personal thing of mine. I love that style of storytelling.
I also love the character, he’s my favourite kind of hero. It goes along with the whole idea and spirit of the story, that these are just average kids in an absolutely insane situation and they’re just doing their best to survive. That’s what makes a hero in my mind. Heroes are people who aren’t necessarily blessed with superhero qualities but they’re blessed with courage and heart and strength.
I also love that it’s about brotherhood. It’s about banding together. James [Dashner, Maze Runner author] has this theory about humans that this is how people are built and this is how they’d react. They wouldn’t turn against each other and become vicious, they’d work together and that’s what would enable them to get out and survive.
Are you ready for the inevitable comparisons with Divergent, The Hunger Games, etc?
We understand it’s the same genre and it’s kind of a new genre in movies, which is why it gets talked about so much. You don’t see Spider-man, Batman or Iron Man being flagged for being similar stories even though they’re literally the exact same regurgitations but people accept that they’re different because they’re about different people and they’re different in their own unique ways.
This is the same, it’s not going to be one of those films beat for beat, it’s its own thing entirely. It feels different, it looks different. Very largely it’s almost the polar opposite because it’s about being well intentioned and the idea we’d instinctively come together and work together to survive rather than become power hungry and vicious.
The comparisons are great though because they’re very good and successful movies we’re being compared to, it’s flattering. We’re really proud of what we did and I think it could be a small little sleeper hit amongst these giant franchises. That’s my hope.
You run a lot in the movie (hence the title). How much training was involved?
I lost about 10 pounds just during shooting because we were running in 100-degree heat every day. A short day would be 13 hours. It runs you down after a while.
We didn’t have a lot of training because we got together really quick, the cast was only together for about 5 days before shooting. We did some very brief stuff getting acclimated with the Glade [the boys’ home territory in the middle of the maze].
But again the whole spirit of the book is that it’s these ordinary kids in extraordinary circumstances, so we’re supposed to be average. We’re not Tom Cruise, we’re not athletes, they’re running for their lives. So it’s good that I look like I’m struggling, because I was.
How much like the character of Thomas are you?
I admire people like him and aspire to be like him. I connected with his honesty and I believe I would have asked the questions he does and want to know what’s behind all this. Then again, it’s a lot easier said than done.
Before acting you went to film school to study cinematography. What’s it like now to be in front of the camera so much?
It was weird. When I was making videos as a kid it was never to get anywhere as an actor. If anything it was to eventually go into directing or cinematography. I did it for fun, I never realised I could try to do something with it even behind the camera until late in high school.
Then the acting thing came up and when it was offered to me I took it because it was a foot in the door and a way to learn and I’m so grateful that it happened. It makes me sad to think I could’ve gone my whole life shying away from what I truly feel like I’m meant to be doing.
I was always such a shy kid acting seemed so far fetched to me. I was really performance shy and could never imagine doing it on a professional scale. It was hard to get used to and I still have so much to learn.
So you might still direct one day?
Something I’ve learned about directing – especially now I’ve worked as an actor over the past few years – I believe wholeheartedly a director really needs to be deserving of that position so I’d hate to jump into that too early before I feel like I’m absolutely ready. I wouldn’t want to be taking a job away from someone who’s much more deserving.
In our case we got to work with someone incredibly deserving. It’s his first movie and it’s going to start a really long career.