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MAKING THE CLIMB
CLARENCE NATIVE CHAD MICHAEL MURRAY IS PATIENTLY WORKING HIS WAY UP THE HOLLYWOOD LADDER

It's only six days after his wedding, yet hot young actor Chad Michael Murray is still willing to call his hometown paper and work a press junket for his upcoming horror film "House of Wax."

The Clarence native and his "One Tree Hill" co-star Sophia Bush wed on April 16 in Santa Monica, Calif., before a gathering of family and friends. They only had a few days off together for an abbreviated honeymoon (the real one is planned for later this year) before returning to work.

"Trust me, I do not want to be spending my honeymoon on a junket," Murray laughs from Los Angeles. "This is the last place I want to be, but we'll find our time together. Right now, we've got some work to get done."

That work includes promoting "House of Wax," a remake of the 1953 Vincent Price horror classic "House of Wax" (itself a remake of 1933's "Mystery of the Wax Museum"), which opens Friday in area theaters. In it, Murray and a young cast including Elisha Cuthbert ("24"), Jared Padalecki ("Gilmore Girls") and Paris Hilton, play a group of friends on their way to a football game when they stumble upon an abandoned town of wax-covered corpses.

The physically demanding movie was shot in Australia, a long way from Clarence, where only six years ago Murray was a quiet student preparing to graduate and pursue his acting dream. If you don't know how he's doing, walk down to the corner Wilson Farms, where you can find his face on at least six magazine covers right now. Or tune in at 9 p.m. Tuesdays to the hugely popular WB series "One Tree Hill" and watch his sensitive portrayal of Lucas Scott, a young outsider being raised by his single mother who discovers the father he never knew and his half-brother live in his hometown.

With an endearing smile that tends to tilt up to one side, a gentle voice and an irresistibly handsome face, Murray maintains the boy-next-door image while being the stuff of teen dreams.

His portrayal as the adorable Jake who woos Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis in "Freaky Friday" was one of the reasons the 2003 Disney remake was box-office gold; the same goes for his absolutely captivating performance as a modern-day Prince Charming in last year's sweet "A Cinderella Story" opposite Hilary Duff.

Yet the 23-year-old doesn't consider himself a heartthrob, nor, it seems even a star.

"I don't think about it. I've got so much left to do that I want to do, and that's all I think about. Those are my goals," he says.

But others are quick to point out his appeal.

"When you're in his presence, you have his undivided attention," says Danielle Chiara, entertainment editor of J-14 magazine. "Even if you only get to talk to him for five minutes, you have his attention the entire five minutes. He has an honesty about him. He's humble and down-to-earth. Hollywood hasn't gotten to him yet -- he's still that hometown boy."

And Lauren Waterman, a senior writer for TeenVogue who has interviewed Murray on a few occasions, most recently for the magazine's May cover story, says that Murray is a "safe bad boy."

"His characters before 'One Tree Hill' had this sort of dark side or edge to them, but you could also see that he was really sweet, and girls respond to that. They see he is a soulful character," Waterman says.

"He's also a romantic. Whenever he talks about Sophia, he gushes about her. He seems like a very romantic, very caring guy," Waterman adds.

Murray and Bush met on the "One Tree Hill" set and began dating in 2003. He proposed last year while filming in Australia by popping the question on a tennis court decorated with 20 bouquets of roses and 500 candles spelling out a special message.

When asked about the wedding, Murray is polite but carefully measures his words as he does with all questions about his personal life.

"All I'll say is that it was the best day of my life. It was absolutely phenomenal. She was gorgeous. It was perfect."

As to what attracted him to his wife, Murray is succinct, yet very touching. "She's it. She makes me a better man," he says as his voice becomes hushed and warm.

But there are topics where Murray isn't quite so reserved. Just mention the Buffalo Bills and he nearly leaps through the phone.

"Oh my god, I love the Bills. I've got my satellite TV in my trailer if I have to work. I've got my NFL Sunday Ticket so I can watch every game," he says. "I can't wait to see what J.P. Losman does. And for the Travis Henry trade -- well, I hope they get something good for him. And . . ."

Well, you get the picture. Murray continues on, as any self-respecting 12th man would do, with his wish list for the team. And from his love of the team, the Bills' season-ticket holder begins to talk about his passion for his hometown.

"I just love Buffalo, and I always will. I intend to buy a house there someday soon."

Murray's journey to stardom would make an inspiring movie of the week. Murray, his three brothers and sister were raised by their father, whom Murray calls "a great man and a good role model."

Outside of a few close friends who attended his wedding, Murray says he was pretty much a loner in high school. He even refers to himself as a nerd; one of his teachers would put a more positive spin on it.

"He was quiet and laid back," recalls his English teacher Sharon Webber. "He always seemed confident, even though he didn't have a great need to draw attention to himself. As for having a level of maturity of what he wanted to do, Chad is ahead of the pack.

"He would always say 'I'm gonna be an actor,' and I would say, 'Sure you are.' I missed my one chance to be recognized at the Emmys in a thank-you speech," she laughed.

Murray did some modeling in high school, but his love of acting grew from working at the Eastern Hills Mall Cinema in Clarence, where he was inspired by films including "American History X" and "Buffalo 66."

"I got to see all these great independent movies, and that's when I really feel in love with great acting. I just wanted to do it and give it a shot," he recalls.

And give it a shot he did. After high school, Murray left for Los Angeles with only his graduation money and a dream.

"It's funny, in the back of my head now I go, 'Holy cow, how did I do it?' " he laughs. "It's weird. I picked up and went and didn't think about it. I didn't analyze it. I just went to Los Angeles with no money.

"I knew I would give it everything I had. And I think if you work hard enough and study hard enough, then you get opportunities. And I tried to take advantage of the opportunities I was given. You go through the audition process, you read and read and read for parts. Once in a while, you find one that's right for you. But you have to study, you have to take classes and work as hard as you can."

Within a year of making his bold move, Murray gained his first acting role in the PAX show "Chicken Soup for the Soul" and then earned a recurring role on the WB's "Gilmore Girls," where he played the ultraconfident Tristan DuGrey. That was followed with another WB series and "bad-boy" role as Charlie Todd on "Dawson's Creek."

"When I started, the WB was the place you could grow; the place you could learn from other actors. On 'Dawson's Creek,' Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson had been working for a while, so I could learn from them. I tried to take in everything I could."

Chiara of J-14 magazine has seen Murray develop as an actor through his three WB series.

"He's been a staple of the WB. He's worked hard for this," Chiara says. "He's grown with each of his roles, and I think his fans have seen that, too. His characters, Lucas especially, are characters our teens care about. Lucas deals with topical issues. He's personable and identifiable with what's going on with teens."

The very characteristics of Lucas that fans of "One Tree Hill" love also drew Murray to the character.

"I liked how introverted the character was. He's very torn between his father, his mother and his brother. And I liked the family dynamic. It's a very interesting one. I've lived a little of that, so I felt like I had the opportunity to explore that even further and explain to a young audience.

"The show has a very realistic content. It doesn't stray far from reality. We've had a great opportunity to explore family relationships, and that's what the show is about."

As to the two-hour season finale, airing May 24, Murray can't say much about it or if the burgeoning friendship between Lucas and Brooke (played by Bush) will turn romantic.

"I can say that their relationship will grow," he hints.

Between seasons, Murray keeps busy with feature film work, careful to avoid typecasting. The more acting roles he wins, the harder Murray seems to work. He could easily rest on his laurels and play safe, teen-friendly roles. Instead, he looks for ways to grow as an actor and challenge himself.

For "House of Wax," for instance, Murray knew he couldn't rely on the support of his built-in teen audience to fill theaters for the R-rated horror film -- and that's why he chose the role.

"I wanted to stretch out to a different demographic. It's rated R, so a lot of my teen audience can't get in without a parent. But a lot of college students will go see this type of film. I'll be able to open up and see what other demographics think of my work," he says. "And I wanted to see if I could do a horror movie -- I wanted to know if I could cut it in that genre."

Then in June Murray begins shooting "Stealing Cars," a drama about a rebellious teen who, guilt-ridden over the accidental death of his father, falls into delinquency that lands him in a corrupt juvenile institution.

"It's a great story. It's very emotional and physical. It's what would happen if instead of Will Hunting seeing a therapist, he went to prison," he says referring to the Oscar-winning film "Good Will Hunting."

Those are just two examples of Murray's seemingly fearless attitude toward bettering himself and his craft that began when he left his hometown just a few years ago.

"You gotta do what you gotta do to get to where you want to be," he says. "My goal as an artist is to do projects that are creatively fulfilling to me. They're not going to hand a 'Taxi Driver' to some guy off the street. You have to work and show your credibility and your love for your art. You have to push yourself and strive for something better. You have to prove yourself to people. And I'm getting to do that."

"I love it. I really, really enjoy my craft. I enjoy my job. I set my goals high, and I take it step by step. The gift, to me, is the final project."

e-mail: truberto@buffnews.com