Don't call Dylan O'Brien an action movie star, unless you want him to burst out laughing for a solid minute. The TV-turned-movie star is sits next to me on a couch in a Four Seasons hotel suite in Beverly Hills on an early morning in July for the American Assassin press junket, looking extremely comfortable in a simple T-shirt and jeans. He was calm and relaxed... until I made the mistake of calling him an action movie star, prompting him to lean over in a fit of laughter.
"I crack up that that's where I've ended up at this point in my career," he tells me once he's caught his breath. "Just because I don't think, when I first started auditioning, people were sending me in for the big, tough, action guy. It was more like funny friend."
Looking at the trajectory of his career, that's pretty spot-on. O'Brien shot to fame with MTV's Teen Wolf as Mieczyslaw "Stiles" Stilinski, the fan-favorite comedic relief on an otherwise dark and supernatural series. He quickly became one of the most-GIFed TV characters on the internet, as viewers related to his anxieties, laughed at his unfortunate word vomit habit, and watched as his inability to keep himself out of trouble resulted in him saving the day more than the average high schooler could ever dream of. O'Brien then leveraged that comedic relief reputation for a guest appearance on New Girl before playing a bit role in Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn's The Internship.
It wasn't until he landed the lead role in The Maze Runner franchise that O'Brien realized he could be more than just the funny sidekick. Now, as he gears up for American Assassin (in theaters Sept. 15), the first of what can potentially be many films based on Vince Flynn's New York Times' best-selling Mitch Rapp novels, a whole new world has opened for him.
"It's funny, because I started acting comedically," he tells me. "The way I got into it originally was these shorts that I made. They were always comedic sketches. And then my first part that I played on Teen Wolf was the comic relief of the show, and that's how I got my start with acting, what got me into it. But I've always loved all kinds of movies, and all kinds of performances and all kinds of actors, particularly actors who do it all."
While he never tried to predict where his career would take him, it was always his goal to diversify his roles and projects.
"As an artist, with your craft, you never want to be doing the same thing," O'Brien says. "I always laugh that I've done two action movie [franchises] now, with the Maze Runner movies and now [American Assassin]. But I've always loved action, and it's always been something I wanted to try."
He starts laughing again as he suddenly remembers how someone recently showed him a quote he said "like six years ago."
"Someone asked me what movies I want to be doing and I was like, 'I want to do action movies,'" O'Brien says. "I don't even remember saying that! So I guess I did, I do want to do action movies. They've always been some of my favorite movies of all time, really well-done action films. For me, what's paramount is there being a story at the center of it, a really good one, and something that brings you along for the ride. I've never liked action for the sake of action. Motivated action and really well-done story action is something I've always loved."
But it hasn't always been easy-going for the 26-year-old actor, as he suffered a major on-set accident while filming the third Maze Runner film in the franchise, The Death Cure, back in March 2016. O'Brien was thrown from a moving vehicle and struck by another car during filming, resulting in injuries so severe that production was shut down indefinitely after initially being scheduled to resume in May. After spending months in serious recovery, he began training for American Assassin, his first project after the stunt gone wrong. While the studio hopes that American Assassin will become a franchise, there are no set plans in place yet, and O'Brien isn't worried.
"Am I looking to do more [action movies] in the future? Sure," he says with a small shrug. "But as an actor, you always want to do something different. I don't doubt that I will, but it's just about whatever comes up next, whatever I'll want to sink my teeth into, whatever presents a new challenge, something that I haven't tried yet. That's what I'll be interested in."
No matter where O'Brien's career takes him next, he'll always be grateful for the show that started it all for him: Teen Wolf. When he first took on the role of Stiles, he had no idea it would turn into a seven year project, or how much the experience would change him as an actor and as a person.
"Teen Wolf was my school," he says with a smile. "I've always considered it my acting school that I went to for seven years. I never trained as an actor. I got the gist of it when I first started, enough so to land a role. But Teen Wolf, I can't give enough credit to the experience that gave me on a set and experiencing the process of filmmaking and really diving in to how it worked and the hours that you spend in front of a camera. Especially the character I got to play on that show and all the layers I got to play with that character and all the things they allowed me to do over the course of seven years. It was like actors' boot camp. It was awesome."
O'Brien made sure to return to Teen Wolf (currently airing its final season on Sunday nights) to wrap up his story both for the fans and for his own experience, and so he could say a proper goodbye to Stiles.
"I loved every layer of him," O'Brien says. "I loved his emotional layer, I loved his tortured layer, the becoming possessed layer he went through at one point as well, and obviously I always loved his natural, heightened energy and spastic, comedic layer. I always loved how smart he was. I love that character and I love the whole time I spent on that show. I really do. It's hugely important to me too, as an actor. It was where I learned to do anything."
Armed with that knowledge, there's no telling where O'Brien's career will lead him to next.