Prior to the launch of MTV’s Teen Wolf in 2011, Dylan O’Brien was famous for, well... nothing. During high school, he posted a few funny YouTube videos where he did things like lip synch to Spice Girls songs, but we’re not talking Vlogbrothers-style celebrity status here.
When he was cast as Stiles Stilinski in Teen Wolf, he hadn’t so much as played “teen boy #3” in the background of another TV show. And yet, it only took a handful of episodes for him to shine out as the definitive star of the show.
At 1.1 million followers, his Twitter account is more popular than Tom Hiddleston’s. In 2013, he was the sixth most reblogged actor on Tumblr, just behind Benedict Cumberbatch, Matt Smith, and the three main cast members of Supernatural—the unbeatable Superwholock trifecta. So, considering the fact that he’s never starred in anything anywhere near as famous as Doctor Who or a Marvel movie, how did he become the most popular actor you’ve never heard of?
Future Academy Award-winner Dylan O’Brien
It’s easy to assume that when Tumblr teens say they like a TV star for his skills as an actor, it’s akin to someone saying that they read Playboy for the articles. The thing is, with Dylan O’Brien, being a fan of his acting is a completely legitimate claim. Sure, he may look like a luminous cross between Bambi and a member of One Direction, but his acting is what really sets him apart from the crowd. Everyone on Teen Wolf is as cute as a button (or as ripped as a Calvin Klein model), but you don’t see them receiving the kind of manic attention that’s currently reserved for Dylan O’Brien.
GIF via dekkers/Tumblr
You know when you discover the existence of some weird role an A-list star took on before they were famous? As in, did Jennifer Aniston really star in a horror movie called Leprechaun? Did Elijah Wood seriously make a National Dairy Board PSA on the health-giving properties of cheese? What, exactly, led George Clooney to end up credited as “lip-syncing transvestite” in a 1992 movie about organ harvesting?
For Dylan O’Brien, Teen Wolf’s Stiles Stilinski is that role.
Now, we’re not for a moment saying that Teen Wolf is embarrassing. There’s a reason why it’s gained such a cult following over the past couple of years: It’s entertaining, it’s unusually good at representing LGBT characters, and by all accounts it’s a cut above most similar teen shows on TV right now. It’s not quite on the same level as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but then again, what is? Either way, in the context of Dylan O’Brien’s career, it’s a different story entirely. In ten years’ time, people are less likely to be saying, “Dylan O’Brien, former star of Teen Wolf,” and more likely to be asking, “Can you believe that Dylan O’Brien seriously used to star in a show called Teen Wolf?”
In an interview with The Backlot back in 2012, showrunner Jeff Davis spoke about what it was like to see O’Brien working on the first episode of the show.
“To be honest, when we saw Dylan in the pilot, I really felt like we had a star in the making. He was just so perfect for the role... I think he will be like winning Oscars. It would not surprise me. Look at Leonardo DiCaprio who started in a TV show when he was a teenager, Growing Pains. He had that same charisma.”
The Dylan O’Brien effect forces you to preface everything with “No, seriously.” No, seriously, he plays a character named Stiles Stilinski. On MTV’s sexy remake of the 1985 Michael J. Fox movie Teen Wolf. No, seriously, he’s really good, and you need to start watching the show immediately, if only to witness his ability to turn from Hugh Laurie-style pratfalls to red-eyed tearfulness in a matter of seconds.
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This journey from doubt to glorious fanboy acceptance is illustrated to full effect in an episode of filmmaker Kevin Smith’s podcast, in which he interviews O’Brien about his extremely brief career. Smith ended up watching Teen Wolf on his daughter’s recommendation, and was quickly taken in by O’Brien’s natural talent for balancing serious drama with slapstick comedy. The interview pretty much consists of the veteren filmmaker showering praise on a somewhat perplexed O’Brien, who at this point was only 19-years-old and eight episodes into the show’s first season. Basically, it’s half an hour of this:
“I’ve been doing this twenty years, and it’s very rare to find people that are like, dyed-in-the-wool born naturals. Some people have to work at it, some people make it their whole life’s work to pull of what you’re able to accomplish just kinda naturally.”
... Interspersed with Kevin Smith’s wife telling him to tone it down because he’s freaking the kid out.
Since then, O’Brien has landed central roles in two moderately successful indie movies and the critically panned Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson comedy The Internship, but his big mainstream break will be The Maze Runner, the latest Young Adult dystopian thriller to try and ride the Hunger Games wave.
GIF via dylano-brienismyhusband/Tumblr
The power of fandom
If you tried to work out what Teen Wolf was about just by looking at its online fandom, you’ll almost certainly end up assuming that Stiles is the main character. But he isn’t. No, seriously. Most of season 1 focused on actual teen wolf Scott McCall and his star-crossed romance with werewolf hunter Allison Argent, while Stiles had a comedy sidekick role as a kind of cross between Willow and Xander’s characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The problem is, the show’s fanfic takes a decidedly different route. In the two and a half years since the show went on air, Teen Wolf amassed over 32,000 fanfics on Archive of our Own, and about two-thirds of those stories are about Sterek, the slash fanfic “ship” of Stiles and grim-faced alpha werewolf Derek Hale.
Photo via stilestheunstoppable/Tumblr
Dylan O’Brien’s 1.1 million Twitter followers aren’t all there for his acting talent or perfect cheekbones, and they’re certainly not there for his admittedly rather dull tweets. No, his online popularity is at least partly due to the ever-growing online community of Sterek shippers. To understand O’Brien’s popularity, you need to understand Sterek.
It’s fairly typical for the average Teen Wolf fanfic to bear very little resemblance to the actual show. Sterek, obviously, is not actually a canon pairing. But aside from that, a lot of Teen Wolf fandom’s fanfic output seems to focus on the central characters having a friendly “wolf pack” relationship as a group, and dealing with Buffy-style monsters and witches. People who read fanfic before watching the show are inevitably surprised to discover that there’s no real “wolf pack” (because nobody on the show trusts each other, except Scott and Stiles), Derek is a relatively minor character until season 2, and most of Stiles and Derek’s brief interactions consist of physical altercations or temporary, mistrustful alliances.
GIF via queerstiles/Tumblr
Unlike Tumblr fandom’s other uber-popular slash ships, Destiel (Supernatural) and Johnlock (Sherlock), there isn’t much in the way of noticeable gay subtext between Stiles and Derek -- at least, not noticeable unless you’re a Sterek fan. The actors and showrunner were actually a little perplexed at first (albeit delighted to have inspired such an enthusiastic fan-following), because Teen Wolf is one of the few fandom-popular shows that actually includes multiple positive portrayals of queer characters in canon. Just not, you know, Stiles or Derek. Yet.
As a result, the overwhelming popularity of Sterek has caused something of a rift in Teen Wolf fandom. Although the cast and crew are supportive of fans shipping the pairing, they’re forced to tread something of a fine line thanks to a long-running and vocal fan campaign to make Sterek canon. In particular, many fans want Stiles to be written as canonically bisexual, which recently led to the actress who plays Stiles’ new love interest receiving some unpleasant pushback on Twitter.
You can rock the boat without sinking a ship ;) RT @MissJulia91 You know all the shippers sterek hate your character, right? xD— Zelda Williams (@zeldawilliams) January 24, 2014
Why do people feel the need to tell me how ugly they think I am? It's fine you think I'm unattractive, you don't have to be rude about it.— Zelda Williams (@zeldawilliams) January 24, 2014
Luckily, the core cast of Teen Wolf all appear to be the best of friends. There’s no sign of any resentment that Dylan O’Brien sometimes gets more attention from fans, and Teen Wolf’s DVD commentaries are full of scenes where the other actors fall over themselves to compliment O’Brien on his seemingly effortless acting. Tyler Hoechlin (Derek Hale) is known for being a straight-up Dylan O’Brien fanboy, regularly talking about how much he loves to film scenes with Stiles. And then, of course, there’s the legendary Dylan O’Brien/Tyler Posey friendship.
There is no better term for this than BFFs. While filming the first two seasons of the show, O’Brien and Posey actually lived together, and every interview with the two of them devolves into them talking about how much they love each other. Half of the Stiles/Scott scenes in Teen Wolf are basically just the two actors behaving the way they do in real life, right down to their no-longer-secret handshake. Watch this space for Dylan O’Brien almost certainly being the best man at Posey’s upcoming wedding, at which point fangirls’ hearts will probably explode.
GIF via anthonyedwardstarks/Tumblr
In 2013, we published an article about what makes some fandoms succeed while others fail. Dylan O’Brien himself exhibits most of the necessary factors as a fandom unto himself, Teen Wolf or no Teen Wolf. He has an adorable and slightly homoerotic relationship with not one but two of his good-looking male co-stars. He’s at the centre of whirlwind of fanfic and fanart productivity. With his ability to cycle through about twenty facial expressions in two seconds, he’s incredibly GIF-able. And there are even hints that by the end of this season of Teen Wolf, his character will be revealed to be that rarest of creatures: a male bisexual character who is portrayed in a positive light.
It seems likely that Dylan O’Brien will stick with Teen Wolf for at least the next couple of seasons, providing the show keeps getting renewed. He loves Stiles and the show’s fans love him, to the extent that ratings will almost certainly suffer when he eventually leaves. But he owes a lot to Teen Wolf, both to its fandom and to showrunner Jeff Davis for encouraging him to improvise on set and learn more about filmmaking. The best outcome all round would be for Stiles to get a fitting send-off sometime around season five, preferably with a hint of canonical Sterek action to keep the fans happy. Until then, there’s The Maze Runner.
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Based on a Young Adult dystopian adventure novel, The Maze Runner is one of the most hotly anticipated YA movies of 2014, second only to The Fault In Our Stars and the third Hunger Games adaptation.
O’Brien takes the lead role, alongside other well-known young actors from Skins, Game of Thrones and The Chronicles of Narnia, meaning that even kids who had never heard of the books are excited for the first Maze Runner trailer to show up online. Early publicity photos indicate that the film’s costume designer was very aware of how good Dylan O’Brien looks when he’s miserable, bruised and covered in mud, ensuring that every Stiles Stilinski fan on the planet will be vying for a Maze Runner ticket come opening night.
If The Maze Runner is a hit, O’Brien is in the running to become the male Jennifer Lawrence. With his goofy, self-deprecating humor and general appearance of being an unusually handsome muppet, he’s late-night talk show catnip. And if The Maze Runner goes the way of lacklustre YA adaptation City of Bones did last year, well... we’ll always have Teen Wolf.
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