'The Maze Runner' Star Dylan O'Brien on Male-Targeted Franchise: "It's So Not YA, It's Sci-Fi"

Maze Runner Dylan O'Brien Patricia Clarkson Ki Hong Lee P 2014
Andy Kropa/Invision/AP

Maze Runner Dylan O'Brien Patricia Clarkson Ki Hong Lee P 2014

"It doesn't make any sense — these kids are fighting for their lives, they're not gonna stop and kiss and cuddle, and I love that so much"

"Look, I don't know if he's brave or stupid, but whatever it is, we need more of it," says Minho (Ki Hong Lee) of Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) in The Maze Runner, out Friday. While potential audiences may think the line can also apply to the post-apocalyptic, young-adult film adaptation at large, star Dylan O'Brien clarified that the film is distinct from the genre's recent entries, The Hunger Games and Divergent.

"We don't have romance in the movie, and I love that, for the first time in one of these really cool YA stories," he told The Hollywood Reporter on Monday at New York City's SVA Theatre at a special screening of the 20th Century Fox film, presented with Teen Vogue. "During what's going on [in other films], how is there romance happening? It doesn't make any sense — these kids are fighting for their lives, they're not gonna stop and kiss and cuddle, and I love that so much. It's so not YA, it's a sci-fi action thriller."

Directed by Wes Ball, the film follows Thomas (O'Brien), a teenager who wakes up in a region with roughly 50 other boys and surrounded by a deadly maze. He has no memory of his past and does not know why he has been brought there. The story features a racially diverse cast (in text and onscreen) of archetypal male characters, as well as just one young woman, played by Kaya Scodelario. She noted that she was attracted to the role of Teresa because "she doesn't soften, and a lot of times in movies we feel women have to be softened — they can't be edgy, and we have to show a moment of their breaking. But there's no time for that in this. She gets there, she doesn't care about making friends or finding dates. She's all muscle, straightaway. I like that they were brave enough to just show her like that."

The film's only other female character is played by Patricia Clarkson, who was drawn to the franchise at the urging of her friend's teenage children, but also because of Ball. "He's the bee's knees, he's the real thing," she told THR. "He's a cool, amazing young man who really knows what he's doing."

Every day, the boys look for a way out of their world by running through the maze, which shifts every night. The challenge, at one point, had O'Brien and Ki Hong Lee running nonstop for 12 to 15 hours a day for three days in a row, with slides and stunts that led to more than a few scratches and scars. "What's shocking is how little running there is for me — when I look it at, I'm like, 'Where's all the running? I felt like I was running so much!'" said O'Brien. "Eventually, I thought, I can't move my legs, but the more tired I was, the better, because that's entirely what it's supposed to be. He's a kid, not an Olympian." Lee joked, "It sounds exhausting, and it was, but it was fun — it's like getting a workout, working and getting paid at the same time," and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who portrays Newt, noted that their physical exhaustion was also tested by the heat and humidity on set in New Orleans.

What helped, said the cast — including Chris Sheffield, Alex Flores and Dexter Darden — was how they bonded before shooting: a sleepover in the Glade, complete with training with a Navy SEAL on survival skills like throwing knives, chopping wood (and building a stretcher) and cooking food over fire. During production, they hit the gym together, unwound during group dinners and divided up for BB gun fights in hotel hallways. (All of the boys agreed that Gatorade is their workout drink of choice, with O'Brien nostalgic for the now-discontinued kiwi-strawberry flavor he drank as a kid.)

Author James Dashner was initially apprehensive about having his four-book series jump to the big screen, but he felt satisfied when he saw his protagonist, Thomas, enter the maze for the first time. "To see it come to life so close to my vision has been a thrill," he said at the screening, also pleasantly surprised by Ball's interpretation of the maze's Grievers, which actor Jacob Latimore said were fun to imagine as they shot opposite "little guys in blue suits and a couple tennis balls — and I'm six-foot-two, so I'm looking up and imagining these crazy things!"

Dashner penned a YA series that overtly appeals to male readers over female ones — "Girls will read boy books, but boys may not always read girl books, so I think we did a great job putting in something for both audiences," he said — which producer Lee Stollman didn't see as a struggle to adapt, but "an opportunity, because the YA male audience feels like an overlooked audience. Those kids buy a lot of movie tickets, not just for action movies." Producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein said she fell in love with the book before it was published because of its "edge-of-your-seat action," and particularly loved the film's mysterious opening scene, which is how Ball pitched the movie and booked his directorial debut.

Before the screening — introduced by Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Amy Astley and attended by Brooke Shields with her kids, Joseph Cross, Jeremy Strong, Nico Tortorella, Chaske Spencer and Zachary Booth, among others — guests snacked on sliders, skewers and desserts in the SVA Theatre lobby. O'Brien posed for plenty of photos with his entire family, and other members of the cast signed autographs for crowds of patient fans.

Aside from all the running, Brodie-Sangster said of the survival tale, "I hope guys see it on their own or with a bunch of mates, because the essence of it is very true and heartfelt. It's a character-driven piece, really — it's just set in this crazy place. So when the characters go into the maze, you follow them because you believe in them as normal people."

The Maze Runner races into theaters Sept. 19.

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee