A movie franchise is a commitment. Even with the promise of greater fame, job security, and, hopefully, a hefty paycheck, agreeing to become the face of a franchise is no small thing. With most studio franchises operating on an every-other-year schedule, once an actor signs on the dotted line, they are, for all intents and purposes, signing their life over to that franchise for the next half decade at the very least. First there's prepping for the shoot, then the shoot itself, and then a long promotional tour. Beyond that, the promotion never really ends in today's era of movies being closely followed from the green light right up to release. For an actor, the franchise becomes a constant part of their life.
Which is why Dylan O'Brien's commitment to completing the Maze Runner trilogy is so impressive. Even the most normal production can stretch one's resolve. The production of The Death Cure, the third and final movie in the Maze Runner series, however, was anything but normal.
Almost two years ago, in March of 2016, then 24-year-old O'Brien was on the Death Cure set, ready to tackle the last movie. They were just days into filming when a stunt involving a car went horribly wrong and the young actor was run over. It was reported that he had suffered severe injuries and multiple broken bones, and had been rushed to the hospital. The accident was serious enough that production shut down while he recovered. At the time, it was assumed that the shut down would last no more than a few weeks, a month at most.
When the shutdown stretched into weeks, and then months, rumors began to fly. It was speculated that O'Brien would be recast or even that the final movie might be scrapped completely. The actor largely kept himself out of the spotlight in the months after and his family, friends, and everyone involved with the production refused to divulge details for reasons both personal and likely legal. Production finally resumed a full year later with O'Brien still in the lead, but it left everyone wondering what had really happened in the year between filming shutting down and resuming.
It wasn't until September of last year that O'Brien felt he was in a stable enough place to publicly talk about the accident with Vulture and explain what he went through during recovery. In truth, his injuries had been far worse than we knew. Half a year into his long and arduous recovery he was in such a dark place that he wondered if he'd ever return to acting at all. Both physically and mentally, he was at the lowest place he'd ever been, and with just five short career years under his belt, he was seriously questioning whether or not he'd ever be able to get in front of a camera again.
Make no mistake, it was not him simply being shaken by a few broken bones. To this day, he still will not speak in detail of the accident, but even so, he's revealed that he suffered a concussion, facial fractures, and brain trauma, among other injuries. Those aren't the kind of injuries that just set a person back a few months; those are the kind of injuries that can reshape the rest of a person's life. And so it was for O'Brien, who found he'd lost a lot of function in his daily life, not just physically, but also emotionally and mentally.
In recent years, professional athletes have started opening up about potentially career-ending injuries, particularly the effects of brain trauma and severe concussions. It's not pretty. The extent of the effects of head trauma on athletes is only just starting to be understood by doctors, but what is known is that the psychological toll is greater than we ever realized, often continuing to affect the athlete long after the physical injury has healed. Acting isn't a profession where the threat of serious injury is less a potential than a promise, but Dylan O'Brien's injuries had the same lasting effects on the young actor.
Even when he finally got back to work months later, not on The Death Cure, but American Assassin, a project to which he'd been signed before his injury, he was mostly faking it. Before filming even began, O'Brien had to commit to a regular gym routine to get in shape for the role. Gym sessions with his personal trainer would regularly be put on hold when he had a panic attack upon arriving at the gym and would be unable to get through a session. When the day came to board his flight to London to begin filming, O'Brien had one of the worst breakdowns he'd ever experienced, to the point he wasn't sure he'd be able to get on the plane.
With the support of his family and close friends, he persevered and finished shooting for American Assassin. Still, the hardest challenge yet was looming: returning to the set of The Maze Runner, the place where everything had come undone.
It's difficult to imagine how daunting it must have been. Trauma leaves scars. A restaurant you can no longer go because it carries painful memories of a failed relationship in happier times; a song that presses painfully on an old heartbreak; a sentimental memento that hits you with the unexpected grief of a loved one lost. Now imagine having to face returning to a place where you'd come very close to dying less than a year before.
It would have been understandable if he had walked away. It's a testament to O'Brien's mental fortitude and courage that he didn't. He had committed to the role and he was determined to finish it. Filming resumed in March 2017 in South Africa and wrapped in June.
Now, seeing O'Brien giving countless interviews to promote the release of Maze Runner: The Death Cure, he's a little more serious, a little less goofy than before his accident. Yet you'd be hard pressed to believe he's the same guy who, less than a year and a half ago, was wondering if he'd be able to get in front of a camera ever again. Watching him talk about his passion for the project makes one thing certain: Whether or not The Death Cure is a box office success, Dylan O'Brien deserves our love for being so committed to finishing what he started.
Maze Runner: The Death Cure is in theaters on January 26.