During the recent junket for The Maze Runner (opening tomorrow, Sept. 17), the film’s director Wes Ball recounted an amusing incident about the way the movie’s lead actor, Dylan O’Brien was cast, or rather, was almost not cast.
Wes related that when he was approached to direct the adaptation of the best-selling series written by James Dashner after Katherine Hardwicke (Twilight, Red Riding Hood) dropped out of the project, he went about the usual process of casting for the parts.
“We weren’t looking at faces, we weren’t looking at good looks, all that stuff — fortunately, we are okay in that department, too — but we found good actors that can be truthful,” he stated. “I wanted spectacle with an emotional core to it. I can’t just have shiny pictures.”
First one to be cast was for the role of Teresa, which went to British stunner Kaya Scodelario who was just coming off a critically-acclaimed performance as Kathy in acclaimed director Andrea Arnold’s reimagining of Wuthering Heights. Kaya first gained worldwide acclaim through her role as Effy in the provocative TV series, Skins.
The other part that was also immediately cast was that of Gally, which went to another Brit actor and pre-We’re the Millers Will Poulter (he was the naïve and geeky fourth-wheel in that hit movie whose private part was bit a spider!). Will landed the part because of his distinctive eyebrows according to Wes.
The one part that took a long time to cast was that of Thomas, the lead character in this gritty story of a group of boys trapped inside a mechanical maze set in a not-so-distant America. The director wanted to cast the late River Phoenix — yes, he was serious — but knowing that River has long been gone, he went looking for an actor who can remind him of the late actor’s intensity as displayed in the film The Mosquito Coast and Dylan, unfortunately, was among many actors he refused to cast.
Dylan, for those who are not aware, is the lead in the hit TV series Teen Wolf and it surprised this writer that he almost did not get the part because his performance as Thomas is one of the best things in The Maze Runner. That he failed to make an impression during his initial audition and was not called back to read again until after about four months was something any actor, or any first-time director, had to learn from. The reason? The way he wore his hair to the audition!
On the day Dylan auditioned for the role, he was just coming off the set of Teen Wolf and was still wearing the hair and make-up he used for the show. “I was coming off work, I had hair and make-up and I was, like, ‘Oh, this is going to be great,’ yet it turned off the director. Things are funny like that.”
Dylan initially read for the casting director and it took a couple of months before he got any feedback — and it was through sheer coincidence that he got the callback. “There was another project that I was auditioning for and when I went in, they were like, ‘You should come in for Maze Runner,’ and I was, like, ‘I have! You guys never called me back!” he recalled.
The casting director resent Dylan’s tape to Wes and he was called to do another series of casting tests before the producers and other executives before he was finally cast.
The actor would have easily been cast had he just tried to style his hair differently before doing his audition tape. “You don’t think about that. You kind of feel that directors understand that your hair could change and, you know, funny enough, I always roll out of bed and go to auditions and I’ll get flagged for, like, being dirty-looking,” Dylan recalled laughing. “They are, like, ‘You should be more handsome like a leading man!’”
Wes admitted that as a first-time director he was terrible at casting actors. He disregarded Dylan’s initial audition, continued auditioning for other actors with no luck. When someone brought up Dylan again, Wes googled the actor and found a better picture of Dylan and that was when he realized he already had the actor for Thomas all along. “His audition came to mind all of a sudden. Whatever he did, it hooked! Something was right there. This time I looked back at the tape again and, I said, ‘Okay, I can change his hair, obviously’ and we had lunch, we talked and he was the nicest guy ever.”
In The Maze Runner, Dylan’s character Thomas wakes up in a lift, moving slowly upward. As the box grinds to a halt and the doors open, he finds himself among a colony of boys inside an imposing expanse of land surrounded by enormous concrete walls called the Glade and the only way out is through a series of maze that encloses the Glade and changes configuration every day. The maze opens up in the morning and closes at sunset. Anyone trapped inside the maze does not survive the night. Thomas and the boys are trapped inside the Glade until the arrival of Teresa, the only girl ever sent to the Glade, with an ominous note wrapped in her hand.
The movie is a suspenseful and thrilling experience from beginning to end. If you have not read the book that the movie is based on, you will be as hooked as this writer was on the mystery behind the maze and you will most likely be on the edge of your seat during the climax when everything is finally explained and the audience gets a glimpse of what the world looks like outside the maze. It’s a beautiful metaphor on life itself — every step is a choice, every decision an unknown excursion into a dangerous maze.
This is what Dylan also took from the story. Sure, it deals with a dystopian future where everything is dark and bleak and people are constantly struggling and suffering but it offers a way out, a solution — a certain hope that everything will be good again.
“These movies have an undercurrent of metaphorical things and very much involve with growing up and being a teenager and what’s it like to be a teenager,” Dylan remarked. “The maze is a metaphor for growing up, for being a teenager.”
For sometime, publishers lamented the lack of interest among kids in reading books. Today, most of the successful books are about kids in a dystopian future fighting for their survival. Why is it so popular with kids? It’s definitely not the metaphors that attract them. Kaya, who was with Dylan during the interview, offered some insightful observation.
“Because it’s the unknown,” she started. “We are just so aware of where we are in the world right now. We are sharing pictures of handbags on Instagram and things like that. We know this world. It’s not that great. Nothing is really happening. When you look for generations in history of young people, they have a movement — something happens in that generation. We haven’t done really anything. Nothing’s really happened apart from selfies. As a movement, as a group of teens, we haven’t had a thing. We are kind of fascinated with knowing what we could do, if we could be great, if we could actually accomplish something again, you know, the common man becoming the hero thing.”
Dylan nodded in agreement. Although he can start by always be being aware of how he is styling his hair.