Dy­lan O’Brien, back in ac­tion

Ac­tor talks about his re­turn af­ter on-set ac­ci­dent

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Amy Kauf­man

For the past year, Dy­lan O’Brien has been in hid­ing. He spent most of his time in­side his home in Sher­man Oaks, won­der­ing whether he’d ever be the same per­son he was be­fore the ac­ci­dent. Not just emo­tion­ally, but phys­i­cally too: Af­ter ma­jor re­con­struc­tive surgery that left him with four metal plates hold­ing one side of his face to­gether, he feared he’d never look the same again.

“It’s a mir­a­cle, what they’ve done,” O’Brien says, plac­ing his hand on his cheek. In­deed, the ac­tor’s team of doc­tors must have done in­cred­i­ble work, given the fact that he looks al­most ex­actly as he al­ways has — the boy­ish teen heart­throb who has amassed an army of young fe­male fans since he be­gan work­ing on MTV’s “Teen Wolf ” at 18.

Of course, he’s 26 now, so he’s filled out a bit, and there’s also a hint of patchy scruff on his face. He had enough grav­i­tas that the pro­duc­ers of “Amer­i­can As­sas­sin,” which opens na­tion­wide Fri­day, felt con­fi­dent cast­ing him as the griz­zled ac­tion-hero Mitch Rapp — even though the char­ac­ter in Vince Flynn’s best­selling books was widely be­lieved by read­ers to be in his 40s.

“Amer­i­can As­sas­sin” is the rea­son O’Brien emerged from his self-im­posed ex­ile. He’d signed onto the film just a few weeks be­fore he be­gan work on “Maze Run­ner: The Death Cure,” the third and fi­nal in­stall­ment in 20th Cen­tury Fox’s post-apoc­a­lyp­tic young-adult fran­chise. He was hop­ing “As­sas­sin” would mark the be­gin­ning of a new pe­riod in his ca­reer. In 2017, af­ter

six sea­sons, “Teen Wolf” would come to an end, as would the “Maze Run­ner” se­ries.

“I’ve never looked at my­self as this pop candy type,” O’Brien says, pep­per­ing his speech with more col­or­ful lan­guage. “I felt like I was more real than that, so I would get mad when some­one would say [I was a teen heart­throb]. I’d be like, ‘I’m 19! I’m a stoner!’ I re­ally re­sented that.”

He was so ex­cited to be­gin work on “As­sas­sin” that he fielded calls from di­rec­tor Michael Cuesta just as pro­duc­tion be­gan in Vancouver, Canada, on the fi­nal “Maze Run­ner” film. They dis­cussed how O’Brien would ap­proach the char­ac­ter, a 23-year-old who is re­cruited by the CIA to hunt down ter­ror­ists af­ter he wit­nesses his girl­friend’s mur­der at the hands of Mus­lim rad­i­cals.

“I spoke with him on a Satur­day when he had just started ‘Maze Run­ner,’ ad­dress­ing his notes and con­cerns about the char­ac­ter,” Cuesta re­calls. “He was re­ally ex­cited and seemed like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to do this.’ I was like, ‘Pace your­self, dude. Take it slow. We’ll talk when you’re off this project.’ That was Satur­day, and on Wed­nes­day, I got a text from my agent telling me that this aw­ful thing had hap­pened to him.”

On the third day of pro­duc­tion in Canada, O’Brien was per­form­ing a stunt that re­quired him to be har­nessed to the top of a mov­ing ve­hi­cle; re­ports claim he was ac­ci­den­tally pulled off that ve­hi­cle mid­stunt and hit by an­other ve­hi­cle. As a re­sult, he suf­fered “a con­cus­sion, fa­cial frac­ture and lac­er­a­tions,” ac­cord­ing to a re­port from WorkSafeBC.

Fox put pro­duc­tion on hold in March 2016, and O’Brien ul­ti­mately re­turned to set a year later — af­ter he’d shot “As­sas­sin.” “Death Cure,” which was orig­i­nally sched­uled to open in Fe­bru­ary of this year, is now set for re­lease Jan. 26, 2018.

“I didn’t re­ally wake up or be­come cog­nizant, in a way, for a good six-to-eight weeks af­ter it hap­pened,” O’Brien ex­plains. “And then I en­tered a re­ally dif­fi­cult phase. I just wasn’t the same per­son. Things hap­pen to you af­ter some­thing like that that you just don’t have any con­trol of. Your body is de­signed to re­act in a way to pro­tect it­self if you have a se­vere trauma to your brain.”

The ac­tor is sit­ting at a ho­tel bar in late Au­gust, pub­licly dis­cussing his ac­ci­dent for the first time. He’s been an­tic­i­pat­ing this day for months. He knew how it would go, meet­ing re­porters at the Four Sea­sons in Bev­erly Hills, where he’s done press a hand­ful of times be­fore. Even though he was sup­posed to be talk­ing about “Amer­i­can As­sas­sin,” he’d also have to talk about what had hap­pened to him.

“I hid for a long time, ob­vi­ously. I was go­ing through a lot and didn’t want any­body to see me go­ing through that, I guess,” he ex­plains. “But I’ve got­ten to an OK place of talk­ing about it all. I’ve had to come to terms with peo­ple ask­ing me about what hap­pened.”

In a way, he ad­mits, he re­grets be­ing so pri­vate about what hap­pened to him, given the rash of re­cent on-set stunt-re­lated in­juries and deaths. Last month, stunt­woman Joi Har­ris was killed while rid­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle on the set of “Dead­pool 2.” In July, a stunt­man on AMC’s “The Walk­ing Dead” died af­ter fall­ing and suf­fer­ing mas­sive head in­juries. And ac­tors have been harmed too: Tom Cruise broke his an­kle while at­tempt­ing a jump from one build­ing to an­other on the set of “Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble 6,” and film­ing had to be halted in Au­gust. And on the sets of two dif­fer­ent come­dies this sum­mer, Rebel Wil­son suf­fered a con­cus­sion and Ike Bar­in­holtz fell from a high plat­form, frac­tur­ing two cer­vi­cal ver­te­brae in his neck.

“It’s re­ally dis­ap­point­ing, and I think things like that should re­ally wake the in­dus­try up,” says O’Brien. “It’s re­ally easy, some­times, to get com­fort­able on a set and get into the groove and think it’s all make-be­lieve so noth­ing bad can hap­pen. As an ac­tor, you blindly put your trust in ex­perts — and if they tell you some­thing’s safe, you don’t fully vet it your­self. If you’re young and in­ex­pe­ri­enced, that’s just what you’re taught to do.”

While he never felt like a “gun was to [his] head,” O’Brien ad­mits he al­ways felt re­spon­si­ble for per­form­ing his own stunts. He’d get up­set any time he had to be re­placed by a stunt­man. When he’d watch one of the first two “Maze Run­ner” films and catch a shot of his dou­ble, he was ir­ri­tated.

“It bugs you,” he ex­plains. “You see it and you’re like, ‘Ugh, what the [heck]? How do peo­ple not no­tice that’s not me?’”

But if he knew if he was go­ing to move for­ward with “Amer­i­can As­sas­sin,” he’d have to ap­proach his ac­tion se­quences with far more cau­tion than he ever had be­fore. Once he de­cided to stay with the project — and CBS Films, the pro­duc­tion com­pany be­hind the movie, agreed to wait for him to fully re­cover — he be­gan work­ing ex­ten­sively with ac­tion co­or­di­na­tor Roger Yuan to ready him­self for the movie’s handto-hand com­bat scenes.

Not sur­pris­ingly, O’Brien says, there were strict pa­ram­e­ters set in place by the film’s in­sur­ance com­pany that dic­tated just how much he could do him­self in the wake of his ac­ci­dent. But he was still ea­ger to do the fight scenes him­self, so he re­hearsed them ex­ten­sively — to the point, he says, where he lit­er­ally could do the chore­og­ra­phy blind­folded.

“You just want to know it to that ex­tent so that ev­ery­body knows what they’re do­ing on that day,” he says. “And then when you get to that day and some­body says, ‘Wait, can we just change this?’ You say ‘No.’ Things like that, you’ve gotta stand up for. I’ve un­der­stood more of where my voice can ex­ist. When I was younger, I used to just want to please ev­ery­body and not want to be an is­sue or not be con­sid­ered a diva. I’ve just grown up and re­al­ized you have to look out for your­self and stick up for your­self and there’s noth­ing wrong with that.”

Other pro­tec­tions were built into the pro­duc­tion to make O’Brien feel more at ease too: His fa­ther, a vet­eran be­low-the-line staffer, was hired as a cam­era op­er­a­tor so he could be there if needed for his son. And “on the days we were putting Dy­lan in a sit­u­a­tion that might make him un­com­fort­able, we took longer than we might nor­mally take be­cause we didn’t want to rush it,” says pro­ducer Lorenzo di Bon­aven­tura. “We were acutely con­scious of not putting him in a sit­u­a­tion where he could have an ad­verse re­ac­tion — a stunt that might rekin­dle some­thing.”

O’Brien had also spent time ready­ing him­self men­tally for the re­turn to set even be­fore pro­duc­tion be­gan, vis­it­ing with a ther­a­pist two times a week. It was there that he re­al­ized the sim­i­lar­i­ties he now shared with Mitch Rapp, a char­ac­ter strug­gling to con­tain his anger in the wake of a se­ri­ous trauma.

“It felt like this ver­sion of me at the time, al­ways try­ing to hide from peo­ple,” he says. “I was in a re­ally dark place. Ob­vi­ously, I didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence what he goes through, but that sum­mer when I was in re­cov­ery, I was go­ing through a lot. Funny enough, I felt so deeply con­nected to the dude, and I don’t think I would have known how to play him if this hadn’t hap­pened.”

Mean­while, it re­mains to be seen whether “Amer­i­can As­sas­sin” will be the role to cat­a­pult O’Brien into adult lead­ing-man ter­ri­tory. His young fe­male fans are still rav­en­ous, any­way: On set in Rome, they once be­came so in­tense that the ac­tor was forced to move to a dif­fer­ent ho­tel.

The pro­duc­ers of “As­sas­sin” are hop­ing the film does well enough at the box of­fice this week­end to launch a new ac­tion fran­chise. O’Brien knew that was a pos­si­bil­ity, and says he’d be happy to play Mitch Rapp again. But he’s also look­ing for­ward to do­ing some­thing smaller — “find­ing the new gen­er­a­tion of film­mak­ers and tak­ing risks on guys who don’t have a 25-year ré­sumé.” The idea of act­ing in a Marvel su­per­hero film, he says, makes him shud­der.

“It just seems like too much,” he says. “I don’t think I’m a per­son who could han­dle be­ing that face, that star who has to be on ev­ery talk show ev­ery year. It gives you a lot of flex­i­bil­ity and free­dom in things that you do want to do, but it also takes a lot of your time away. And just ar­tis­ti­cally, it must be hard to keep suit­ing up and be the same char­ac­ter again over and over all year long in a bunch of dif­fer­ent movies. I would like to have a lower pro­file and ca­reer, in a way, but still do things that mean some­thing to me.”

He’s proud of his work in “As­sas­sin,” he says, but he al­most doesn’t look at it as a movie.

“It was ev­ery­thing but, in a way,” he ac­knowl­edges. “Look, I was an­gry for a long time. But at this point, that’s not go­ing to do any­thing. I have to process what hap­pened and move be­yond it, and I have. It was the worst thing that ever hap­pened to me, but it’s pro­vided me with a lot of growth and in­sight that I wouldn’t have had oth­er­wise.”

Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

“AMER­I­CAN AS­SAS­SIN” ac­tor Dy­lan O’Brien suf­fered a con­cus­sion and cuts on a pre­vi­ous movie.

Chris­tian Black CBS Films and Lion­s­gate.

“AMER­I­CAN AS­SAS­SIN,” Dy­lan O’Brien’s new film, re­turns him to the ac­tion roles he once cov­eted, but he’s tak­ing new pre­cau­tions fol­low­ing his ac­ci­dent.

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