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The Second Coming of Chad Michael Murray

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Photo: Matthew Leifheit

Chad Michael Murray’s hands are slowly, ever-so-gently making their way toward my face. “You have a sweet little worm in your hair,” he says, extricating it. It’s a painfully embarrassing moment for me, just barely tempered by the fact that Murray had swallowed a fly only minutes beforehand. (He took it in stride, gargling some water, then jumping back into our conversation.) But listening to the actor so earnestly carry on a conversation with a worm while placing it on a nearby leaf, my mortification subsides. “Don’t go under my shirt, champ. Nope, nope. Here you go!”

Proximity to such creatures is a hazard of our current location. We’re on a bench in the middle of the Central Park Zoo, a few yards from the snow monkeys we saw humping each other earlier. Murray wanted to come here because “it turns out that when you Google fun things to do in New York, sure enough, the zoo pops up.”

The actor is in town for a whirlwind 48 hours to promote his new Netflix film, Mother of the Bride, along with the romantic CW series Sullivan’s Crossing. Despite the jet lag and digested fly, nothing will harsh the 42-year-old’s vibe. Especially not the parade of tourists who interrupt our conversation to ask for a selfie (he throws up the shaka each time) or to inquire if people often tell him he looks like Chad Michael Murray (“Chad, nice to meet you,” he responds to one stunned fan, shaking their hand).

Photo: Matthew Leifheit
Photo: Matthew Leifheit

Middle age looks good on Murray. His hair is as golden and swoopy as ever, with patches of gray now coming for his beard. A few lines creep across his forehead. Yet Murray knows that many people, like the ones we meet at the zoo today, still see him as his former teen-dream self. Not that he’s complaining: “You may not know it, but you watching me on Gilmore Girls has a lasting impact. It makes a little notch in your heart and actually shapes who you are ever so slightly,” he explains. “Even when we’re old and I’ve got crazy gray hair and everything else, we will still have that bond.”

Murray’s gratitude may, at times, feel heavy-handed. But the more time we spend together — with the laid-back, happy-go-lucky actor letting me lead the way through the zoo exhibits, from the seals to the lemurs to the penguins — the more I find that his sincerity is real. He’s not immune to giving me the occasional corny TV recommendation (he’s a big fan of Idris Elba’s voice-over work in Knuckles, the animated Sonic the Hedgehog spinoff series) and sometimes he’ll go off on proud-dad tangents (he coaches his young son’s football team). He’s also a spiritual guy; the actor grew up Catholic and recommitted himself to Christianity at 25, and a large silver cross necklace peeks out beneath the bandanna he’s draped around his neck. He reads the Bible and devotionals every morning before work.

The actor sometimes credits his faith with guiding him toward his roles. He tells me he “prayed for a long time” for his latest project, Sullivan’s Crossing, which is now in its second season. On the show, he plays Cal, the elusive yet charming love interest of a neurosurgeon named Maggie. (Sullivan’s Crossing also reunites Murray with his former Gilmore Girls castmate, Scott Patterson, who plays Maggie’s dad.) What he was praying for was a series that could “entertain the world, keep the family values, and show how love can conquer all.” Those might seem like lofty ambitions for a show in which he stars as the resident handyman on a Nova Scotia campground, but to Murray, the message behind it is “healing.”

Photo: Matthew Leifheit

Murray has always relied on pop culture and movies to be a salve, particularly during the weekend trips he’d take to Blockbuster in the rougher periods of his childhood. When he was 10, his mother left him and his five siblings in Buffalo to be raised alone by their air-traffic-controller father, Rex. The two ultimately reconnected earlier this year, right before she died. “I got to hug it out with her,” Murray tells me. “It was really healing to see where my smile came from. I never knew that; we had the same smile.”

In a roundabout way, a near-death experience in his adolescence brought Murray to Hollywood. As a young teen, he began experiencing intense abdominal pain and was ultimately hospitalized for nearly three months. The doctors diagnosed him with a mesentery issue and removed two and a half feet of his small intestine. “When they put me back together, I ended up with 48 ounces of internal bleeding, which led to a blood transfusion on my deathbed,” he says. The nurse who attended to him was also a model, “every 15-year-old boy’s dream,” he says jokingly. She told him he should think about doing the same and promised to connect him with a manager. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to model. I want to be an actor,’” he recalls. Days after his 18th birthday, Murray used the connections he’d made thanks to that model-nurse and moved to Los Angeles to start auditioning.

Photo: Matthew Leifheit
Photo: Matthew Leifheit

His hazel eyes still twinkle with reverence and glee when discussing the “blessed” early-aughts era of his career. By 19, he’d landed his breakout role as Gilmore Girls’ prep-school bad boy, Tristan DuGray. The producers responded positively to Murray’s take on the character as someone who “you’re not supposed to be close to, but boy do you want to be,” and audiences responded even more positively to his appearance as a walking Hollister ad. “Gilmore Girls was trial by fire,” Murray says, shaking his head, still in awe of his ability to handle series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s notoriously fast-paced dialogue as a rookie. He later played the romantic interest of both Michelle Williams and Katie Holmes in the fifth season of Dawson’s Creek; starred opposite Hilary Duff in the 2004 romantic comedy A Cinderella Story; and appeared in the soon-to-be-rebooted Freaky Friday, in which he stole the hearts of both Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. “We had so much fun making that film,” he tells me. He still keeps his wrap gift — a photo with director Mark Waters, whom he worked with again on Mother of the Bride — in his gym.

But playing Lucas Scott, a basketball player forced to build a relationship with his estranged half-brother, for nine seasons on One Tree Hill brought him to the next level. The show earned him three Teen Choice Awards, including “Choice Hottie.” He remembers his first appearance on TRL, in support of the series in 2003, as pure chaos. “We were in the studio and it was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself. On the street, thousands were holding up One Tree Hill signs and singing,” he says. “We were rushed by the crowd as we tried to come outside, and had to be picked up and thrown into the limo. Then, the fans chased us from block to block as the car drove.”

Photo: Matthew Leifheit

One Tree Hill solidified Murray’s reputation as the platinum-highlighted, bicep-tatted, bad-boy crush of adolescent girls of all kinds. The tabloids couldn’t get enough of him, either; they breathlessly covered his rocky relationship with One Tree Hill co-star Sophia Bush, whom he both married and divorced during the show’s time on air. “I was a baby. I didn’t know up, down, left, right,” he says of their five-month-long union. “You move out there and you go, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do now? Get married? That’s exciting!’” (When they broke up, Bush requested to have their marriage annulled, citing “fraud.”)

Today, Murray will tell you that he was “far more fragile than I ever put on.” His success came at him fast. “Everyone starts telling you ‘Yes,’” he explains. “But I was walking around with a really pained heart.” Today, Murray manages living with agoraphobia, which began to affect him at the height of One Tree Hill. “I was around 23 and I had an event in Miami, but I couldn’t leave my hotel room,” he says. “The world felt like it was closing in; I was having anxiety attacks.”

On his 25th birthday, he was startled into changing some foundational aspects of his life in Hollywood. “I woke up and felt unsettled. I didn’t like the direction that I was going in my life,” he remembers. “I went to church, and I got a tattoo of a cross on my left wrist, and I was like, I’m going to move myself in faith.” Growing up, Murray spent his Sundays in church as an altar boy. When his mother left, prayer was just something he did alone at night in his bedroom. By the time he made it out West, he stopped practicing altogether. Ultimately, it took a combination of therapy and religion to show him real growth. Around the same time, he began painting and reading — particularly the high-school-English-class canon, including 1984, Brave New World, and his favorite, The Catcher in the Rye. Murray playfully calls this his “Holden Caulfield phase.” It led him to begin writing regularly, and he eventually published two books: the graphic novel Everlast and the romantic thriller American Drifter. He tells me he’d write a third “in a heartbeat.”

Photo: Matthew Leifheit
Photo: Matthew Leifheit

This is what gave way to the gentle, introspective, worm-carrying man who sits before me today. “I always told myself, ‘I’m doing this for my future wife and kids,’ and now here they are,” he says of his wife, Sarah Roemer, whom he married in 2015. They have a son, 8, and two daughters, 7 and 8 months. “It’s been the greatest chapter of my life.”

These days, rather than being cast as the bad boy, Murray tends to portray the hometown hunk in made-for-TV movies like Write Before Christmas (Hallmark), Love in Winterland (also Hallmark), and Toying With the Holidays (Lifetime). But he hasn’t forgotten how to dot his wholesome repertoire with the occasional steamy part. In Mother of the Bride, he plays a kindhearted, easy-on-the-eyes doctor — who just so happens to have a penchant for older women. It helps that he “totally had a crush” on Brooke Shields, who plays the titular mother in the movie, when he was a teen. “When I saw Blue Lagoon, it was a moment of awakening,” he says between shouting out “Bless you” to a sneezing passerby. This new, mature niche Murray has carved out for himself is a “do-over” of sorts. “I remember in my younger 20s, I’d wake up and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to work.’ And that’s a very different place to even start your day,” he tells me. “It’s just a very different mind-set where I have gratitude. I get to go to work and I love that opportunity to just spread love, try to elevate energy, and respect the craft. Instead of coming at it as a disgruntled, tired 21-year-old.”

He’ll concede that some things were easier for him at 21. A fan stops him to ask if he still plays basketball like he did in his One Tree Hill days — he and his castmates have reunited a couple of times in recent years to play for charity games — and Murray laughs. “I can’t! My hips!” he squeals. We spot a Mister Softee truck on our way out of the zoo, and the actor, being both fanatical about its cherry-dip toppings and a disciplined gym rat, lets out a sigh. Abs are not as easy to maintain these days, and he’s on a strict diet in preparation for Netflix’s The Merry Gentlemen, in which he’ll play a dancer in an all-male, Christmas-themed revue. “I would say I’m your generic wedding dancer,” he says bashfully. Somehow, he still manages to find gratitude in this small dessert sacrifice. “I know how quickly everything can go away, and I know how quickly it can grow into something that you never expected,” he says. “I think it’s all about using that perspective shift. I’m beyond blessed.”

Photo: Matthew Leifheit

Production Credits

Photography by Matthew Leifheit

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Styling by Vivan Chuang

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Photo Assistant Henry Crawley

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Grooming by Hide Suzuki

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Location The Hancock

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The Cut, Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples

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The Cut, Fashion Director Jessica Willis

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The Cut, Photo Director Noelle Lacombe

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The Cut, Photo Editor Maridelis Morales Rosado

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The Cut, Fashion Market Editor Cortne Bonilla

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The Cut, Deputy Culture Editor Brooke Marine

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Samantha Leach , 2024-05-21 13:00:00

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