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Why Dylan O'Brien hasn't been the same since Maze Runner

Remember when every other successful young adult book series was being made into a film franchise? Following the bombastic success of The Hunger Games, trilogies and sagas that lined the shelves at the middle school's Scholastic book fair were being converted into screenplays at a rapid pace. But despite having a built-in audience, the Divergent franchise fizzled, and The Maze Runner ended with a whimper rather than a bang. 

But even though we can only call these films pseudo-successful in the grand scheme of things, they did serve as great launching points for the next big stars in Hollywood, like Dylan O'Brien. However, O'Brien's final Maze Runner film was delayed month after month, thanks to a tragic accident that stalled his meteoric rise to the top. And ever since he finished working on the YA franchise, we can't help but think there's something a bit different about the young star. Here's why Dylan O'Brien hasn't been the same since Maze Runner: The Death Cure.

Dylan O'Brien first got noticed on Teen Wolf

Dylan O'Brien got his start (and a frenzied fangirl following) on MTV's Teen Wolf. He played fan favorite Stiles Stilinski, best friend to the titular teen werewolf Scott McCall, and served as the overall comic relief of the series. As the show evolved, Stiles took on a much more serious and emotional part in the plot, and O'Brien was able to show that he was good at horror, drama, and romance alongside Stiles' usual goofy antics. 

Like all good things, Teen Wolf came to an end in 2017. But O'Brien was already on to bigger and better things, eager to get into the big time. Young, talented, and easy on the eyes, O'Brien was a prime candidate for the growing demand for heartthrob actors to star in the plethora of YA novels-turned-movies. In 2013, he was cast as the lead in The Maze Runner, effectively propelling him into big screen stardom

Dylan O'Brien and The Maze Runner series

First released in 2014, The Maze Runner film series followed the dystopian trend at the time for young adult novels. The story is set in the post-apocalypse, where the world is controlled by an all-powerful organization that the plucky main character and his band of unlikely friends must fight against. Sound familiar? It's because this formula has worked to rake in the cash over and over again. 

The first Maze Runner film has Thomas (O'Brien) waking up with a serious case of amnesia in the middle of a massive maze. The center of the maze is known as the Glade, and the boys that live there, all teenagers or younger, say that the only escape is through the maze. Maze runners plot out the labyrinth by day, but monsters come out at night, and the boys' ultimate escape comes at a great sacrifice. Then in 2015's Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Thomas and the gang are faced with a world scorched by a solar flare. Plus, they have to deal with a zombie-like virus aptly named the Flare. 

Both movies were adrenaline-filled sci-fi romps that made back their budget threefold upon release. But what about the third and final film, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, you ask? Well, that's where things got complicated for Dylan O'Brien.

O'Brien's horrible accident

Acting can be dangerous. Stunts can end badly. The cast and crew on the set of Maze Runner: The Death Cure found that out the hard way when a stunt involving series lead Dylan O'Brien went terribly wrong. In March 2016, on a set in Vancouver, Canada, just days into shooting, a stunt went awry. O'Brien was being pulled from one vehicle when he was reportedly struck by another. Some reported that he was run over, pulled entirely under the wheels of a speeding vehicle, but those rumors were later dismissed. What we do know now is that filming was halted, optimistically scheduled to start again sometime in mid-May. O'Brien was taken to the hospital for observation and treatment, having reportedly suffered from a concussion, a facial fracture, and possible brain trauma. To this day, O'Brien is uncomfortable going into particulars about the accident and has cut off reporters digging deep for the nitty-gritty details.

The healing process took a really long time

At first, filming for The Death Cure was scheduled to resume just a few months after O'Brien's accident. Director Wes Ball said in a hand-written note on Twitter that while he'd been worried for O'Brien and feeling guilty that the accident had happened, O'Brien was "one tough cookie." Ball went on to say that, "After a few weeks of rest and recovery, he'll be back up and running to finish our adventure together." Unfortunately, May came and went, and O'Brien was still recovering. Fans and media alike were unsure of the extent of his injuries as he healed quietly, far away from social media and paparazzi. 

Filming was ultimately delayed indefinitely. Without O'Brien, there wasn't much that production was able to shoot. At the same time, O'Brien had been cast as the lead for American Assassin, an action thriller based on a Vince Flynn novel of the same name. Projects were starting to pile up, and the pressure was on O'Brien in a big way.

The physical toll was immense

We don't know a lot about how O'Brien's injuries affected him physically, and O'Brien likes it that way. "There's really been one or two people who have tried to dig and find out what happened, and I cut it off," he told Vulture. "And I'm comfortable with where I draw the line."

For O'Brien, the recovery process was overwhelming and took a lot longer than the optimistic few weeks that Maze Runner director Wes Ball had previously reported. O'Brien took a total of six months to recover from his injuries, saying that summer was one of the lowest points in his life. "I had lost a lot of function, just in my daily routine," said O'Brien. "I wasn't even at a point where I felt like I could handle social situations, let alone showing up and being responsible for work every day. Long hours on set, delivering a performance and carrying a movie ... it just makes your palms sweat."

The psychological toll was terrible

For O'Brien, the tallest hurdle to get over following his accident on set was the psychological damage the stunt-gone-awry had dealt him. He felt panicked in social situations and felt paralyzed and frustrated by the immense pressure that producers and studios were putting on him. All this led him to question if he really wanted to go back to acting at all. "I really was in a dark place there for a while and it wasn't an easy journey back," O'Brien said to Vulture. "There was a time there where I didn't know if I would ever do it again ... and that thought scared me, too."

When O'Brien recommitted to his starring role in American Assassin, he first had to get into shape for his character. This meant that he had to also commit to long days at the gym, which were hard on both the body and the mind. As O'Brien put it, "Sometimes I'd literally show up at the gym having a panic attack, and my trainer would be like, 'All right, let's just go get breakfast.'" O'Brien credits action coordinator Roger Yuan as a major help during that trying time, as the man was incredibly understanding whenever the actor needed support.

O'Brien's recovery via American Assassin

For a brief period of time, O'Brien wondered if he would ever act again, telling People, "The first time I saw my face I was like, 'That's it.' And then even spending that six months out of it and in recovery and so far away from it, you're in a state of questioning everything. I absolutely went through a period of not knowing what my future was going to be." However, he was also attached to the film American Assassin, which had to start filming soon. Otherwise, the production studio would lose the rights to the story.

But eventually, O'Brien decided to move forward with the project, and he even felt that his accident connected him to the character of Mitch Rapp. The film starts with sudden tragedy, when Rapp's fiance is gunned down in front of him, just moments after he proposed. Rapp then takes on a quest for vengeance, turning himself into a highly trained assassin. So how does this connect to O'Brien's accident? Well, as he explained to Vulture, "I didn't want to let it go, and I also had this really interesting, deeper connection to this character over the course of those four months because of what I was going through." Like Rapp, O'Brien went through intensive training for two months following the accident that made him question everything, and Assassin director Michael Cuesta believes that O'Brien's experiences brought truth to the character.

Returning to The Death Cure

Filming American Assassin, a story that he now felt deeply connected with, was one thing, but returning to the film that had catastrophically injured him emotionally and physically was a wholly different process for O'Brien. Talking with Cinema Blend, O'Brien explained that going back to Maze Runner: The Death Cure was an incredibly tough decision. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen," he explained. "I wasn't sure how I felt about it, to be honest, for a really long time."

However, O'Brien eventually realized he wouldn't have been happy if the production had resumed without him. "It means the world to me to finish this," he elaborated. "I realized how important it was to me, and I would've never been okay with it ending the way it had."

Of course, after finishing American Assassin, he felt more confident in his abilities. "I knew it was going to be really hard, harder than Assassin probably," he explained to Vulture, "but [I thought] if I got through that, I can get through this, and I think I'll come out of the other side being really happy that I did it. And I did."

What about that Maze Runner stunt?

A year after his accident, filming resumed on the set of Maze Runner: The Death Cure, this time in Cape Town, South Africa, rather than Vancouver. On set, O'Brien had the support of his father, a longtime camera man himself, to keep him grounded. 

The Death Cure wrapped up the story of Thomas, giving fans and O'Brien closure. But what about that stunt gone wrong? Was O'Brien forced to reshoot it? In the end, O'Brien was the one who insisted that the shot — the one where he was ultimately injured — be left in the film. In an interview with USA TodayO'Brien said, "My response was actually was like, 'I need you to [leave the scene in], in a way. I would be more heartbroken than if it just went to waste.' "

The shot in question was included in the trailers. It featured O'Brien climbing onto a train, and the actor was super impressed with the scene, saying, "It's an amazing shot. It was the very dangerous thing we were attempting, and obviously it resulted in what it resulted in eventually. But [director Wes Ball] did still use this take. And it's a take that I am proud of."

He and his long-time partner broke up

According to Us Weekly, Dylan O'Brien met actress Britt Robertson during the filming of the 2012 movie The First Time, and love soon bloomed. They'd been a couple for several years before O'Brien's terrifying accident on the Vancouver set of Maze Runner: The Death Cure in March 2016, and the actor credits Robertson's love and support with fueling his recovery and helping him get back on his feet again. 

"My girlfriend was with me every step of the way, even in my hospital bed, she's a saint," O'Brien told People in 2017. "She also got up to Canada so quickly, I didn't know that was possible, and was there one of the first times I opened my eyes." Despite all those years together and heading through trying times together, O'Brien and Robertson split up in 2018. Broken hearts heal, however. Robertson has since been linked with actors Graham Rogers and KJ Apa, while O'Brien was spotted with Chloe Grace Moretz.

The future is bright for Dylan O'Brien

Both Teen Wolf and The Maze Runner took up much of O'Brien's time in the last few years, so following their conclusions, his schedule was open for new projects. However, while fans didn't actually see him in his next blockbuster role, they definitely heard him. O'Brien voiced Bumblebee in the Bumblebee Transformers film, a character who wasn't always just making beeps and boops. 

O'Brien has also popped up in productions like YouTube Red's Weird City, the Apple TV+ anthology Amazing Stories, and the indie drama The Education of Fredrick Fitzell. The actor was also primed for a big comeback with roles in two major movies — the post-apocalyptic thriller Monster Problems and the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Infinite. The return of Dylan O'Brien will have to wait, however, as both films were pushed to 2021 in the wake of theaters closing during 2020. Remarkably, O'Brien is also back to doing stunts again, having been spotted being dragged around by his ankles on the set of Monster Problems.