At some point in our media-consuming lives, we all partake in what Letterboxd scribes refer to as a “thirst watch.” It’s when you spend several hours of your life watching a film or television show you’d otherwise have no interest in, if not for an actor or actress you find deeply attractive and need to see doing ordinary, scripted things like eating an apple or putting on a shirt or simulating sexual intercourse.
The first time I remember having this experience was in high school when my Tumblr feed was inundated with GIFs, fanfiction and ship names from the hit series Teen Wolf, which ran on MTV from 2011 to 2017. I wasn’t exactly interested in sci-fi shows, the original Teen Wolf film it’s loosely based on or anything that appeared like a post-Twilight bandwagon project. But after encountering Dylan O’Brien’s expressive, partly boyish-partly rugged face over and over again online, I began to understand the internet’s affinity for the show’s third-billed actor.
So I sat down and binged two seasons of crappy CGI and a plotline involving Colton Haynes turning into a lizard before deciding that was all the Teen Wolf I could digest. However, I walked away with a lasting crush on O’Brien and his portrayal of Scott McCall’s (the titular character) best friend Stiles Stilinski, who felt like a spiritual descendant of The O.C.’s anxious heartthrob Seth Cohen. I watched O’Brien’s interviews on YouTube and sought out his other projects like the indie rom-com The First Time and even the terrible Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson vehicle The Internship. By the time O’Brien starred in The Maze Runner in 2014, I had seen one too many YA novel film adaptations but was nonetheless excited for O’Brien to become a household name.
But that meteoric ascent didn’t really happen, at least in the sort of franchise-star-to-Oscar-contender-pipeline sort of way. While The Maze Runner trilogy was a financial success, the series is largely considered a flop, failing to make the same cultural imprint as its female-led dystopian predecessor The Hunger Games and even the abandoned Divergent series. The franchise, mostly comprised of up-and-coming actors, also suffered from a lack of star power that would attract eyeballs outside of the group of young moviegoers who were most likely already familiar with O’Brien. Furthermore, the film series was brought to a halt when O’Brien suffered serious injuries on the set of the final installment The Death Cure (he eventually fully recovered, allowing him to finish shooting).
Since then, O’Brien has not continued starring in blockbuster movies or, more curiously, landed on one of a thousand streaming television shows (although he starred in a well-received episode of the Jordan Peele-produced YouTube anthology series Weird City in 2019). But over the past five years, he’s found a way to harness the ultimate celebrity superpower of being unproblematic and likable on social media and maintain a unique level of allure that’s cemented him as the “Internet’s Boyfriend.” Most recently, this public favor—and talent, obviously—earned him a role in Taylor Swift’s newly-released “All Too Well” short film as a supposed analog for Jake Gyllenhaal as well as an appearance on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm playing a rock band-leading version of himself.
When you think of “Internet Boyfriends,” the category of (mostly white) male celebrities that Twitter continually finds themselves sexually flustered over—from Harry Styles to Daniel Kaluuya to John Cho to Timothee Chalamet—those lovable men are typically adored in conjunction with their steady contributions to the zeitgeist, whether it be Oscar-nominated films or pop earworms. So why does O’Brien, despite his limited filmography and low-key presence in pop culture, have such a strong hold over millennials?
“I think he’s part of this initial crop of, like, beloved white boys/Internet Boyfriends—Logan Lerman comes to mind—for being largely unproblematic and down-to-earth,” Natalie Oganesyan, a celebrity news writer for BuzzFeed tells me.
“Of course, as a fan, I don’t know the single first thing about him, but the way he presents himself on social media, during press tours, while meeting/interacting with fans, etc., is super genuine and attractive to me and to a lot of people,” she adds.
According to O’Brien obsessives I surveyed on Twitter, it seems that the actor projects an affability and non-threatening energy akin to Chalamet that makes him the sort of straight, white man women and people of color feel comfortable unabashedly stanning (until they’re not, of course). He’s frequently been on the right side of Twitter discourse, whether it be defending Caitlyn Jenner from transphobic athletes, amplifying resources for Black Lives Matter protesters or expressing bewilderment over Joker’s 11 Oscar nominations. These examples are arguably the sort of bare-minimum expressions of decency and awareness that progressive Twitter goes wild for. But that’s sometimes all you need from a famous person you’ll presumably never have real access to. As Jess, also known as @midwestbimbo on Twitter, summed it up to me, O’Brien “gives off cishet bestie vibe[s] but NOT in a bad way.”
Some other social media antics that’ve gotten O’Brien a lot of fanfare recently is an impressive re-enactment he performed with actress Sarah Ramos of a notable scene from 2010’s The Social Network in which Andrew Garfield’s character Eduardo Saverin confronts Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg. There were also photos this past summer of the actor donning bleached hair and fake tattoos for a role in the upcoming Hulu film Not Okay that sent Twitter into a meltdown, a convenient makeover for our current punk-obsessed times.
“He was like Timothee Chalamet before Chalamet was around,” offers Nia Tucker, a former Teen Wolf viewer. “O’Brien had a YouTube channel from his youth that you could watch funny bits on. And he was so charming off-camera and on-camera as Stiles, but you could always tell he took acting very seriously.”
Along with O’Brien’s charisma and physicality—one Twitter user told me that he has “nice hands”—fans reiterated the fact that, while we’ve known O’Brien for a decade, we still have yet to see all he can do. At a time when Hollywood seems to recycle the same handful of leading men, O’Brien at age 30, purposely or not, has yet to fall victim to the same overexposure that has made some overly-booked actors like Chalamet and Noah Centineo exhausting and even overrated to some.
“I feel like a lot of major actors that could be comparable [to O’Brien] right now either take roles that are absolutely ridiculous, like Noah Centineo, for example, or they take themselves too seriously, and we don’t get to see their personalities,” Tucker says.
“I feel like there’s so much untapped potential for him as an actor,” Oganesyan continues. “Like, he’s genuinely good. And the movies he’s been in haven’t really matched his skill as a performer, in my opinion. So, I’m really excited to see if his next slate of movies like The Outfit and Not Okay help him come into his own/solidify what we already know about him being talented.”
While it might be the average aspiring actor’s dream to be instantly catapulted into A-list territory, it seems like the still-unfulfilled promise of Dylan O’Brien, the star, after all these years, has made him one of the most fascinating public figures to keep an eye on. It may not be the most financially lucrative tactic, but it seems like his brand could continue to benefit by keeping fans hungry.