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Before Zach Roerig dedicated himself to bringing characters to life on television, he spent quite a bit of time among the dead.
"I spent a lot of my summers in cemeteries, which sounds kind of messed up but really it's not, because cemeteries are some of the most beautiful places," he said.
At least the native of Montpelier, Ohio, about 55 miles west of Toledo, had a good reason: making cemetery memorials is the family business. It just happens to be a coincidence that his current role is starring among the undead on the CW's The Vampire Diaries, which began shooting its second season last week.
Roerig, who also has appeared on the soap operas As the World Turns and One Life to Live, comes from a village of about 4,000 and grew up baling hay for the horses on his grandfather's 100-acre farm. It all adds up to a unique resume.
"It was amazing," Roerig, 25, said of his youth, speaking by phone from his grandfather's farm last month. "That's the kind of stuff I was doing before I went to New York."
That move, which came just three days after graduating from a high school where he was on the wrestling, football, and track teams, was a huge leap but it wasn't a complete surprise.
His father had been active in local theater and a number of family members were musicians. One day when Roerig heard an ad on the radio for acting and modeling classes, he thought, "Maybe this is the outlet that I've been missing to really let my talents out."
For two years during high school he traveled to Cleveland every weekend for lessons. After receiving a strong response at an International Modeling and Talent Association convention, he decided it was worth it to pursue acting as a career, even if it meant a difficult transition from his small-town life.
"I used to call my folks bawling all the time," Roerig said. "New York's a big city but when you first move there it can be a real lonely place," he said.
When his friends were home having fun around a bonfire, he was alone in the Big Apple as trash accumulated everywhere during a garbage strike. Andrea Roerig, the actor's mother and president of Fackler Monument Company, said she and her late husband, Dan, were his biggest supporters.
"My famous words were: ‘How bad do you want it?'" she said.
Apparently, pretty bad. Before long her son was appearing in an episode of Law & Order that was filmed in Times Square.
"It was just surreal," Roerig said. "I remember yelling ‘Ohio!' to people on the red tour buses going by. I was so proud."
The soap opera stints followed, first on As the World Turns for two years as Casey Hughes and then a number of episodes on One Life to Live. Later he showed up on the critically acclaimed drama Friday Night Lights, where he was cast as a rodeo star who was the bad-boy beau of the character played by Toledo-native Adrianne Palicki.
"That whole experience in general was great," Roerig said of the work on Friday Night Lights. "It was probably one of my favorite acting jobs in my career thus far just because it was ... so close to home. I was able to wear my own cowboy boots for some of it, things like that.
Most recently, he's been hanging out with a more bloodthirsty crowd. Last year The Vampire Diaries made its debut on the CW as a drama based on the books by L.J. Smith. Roerig plays Matt Donovan, an all-American guy who happens to be the ex-boyfriend of a girl caught between two vampire brothers.
Aside from the subject matter, being a part of the show filmed in Atlanta represents something new for the Ohio native.
"This is different ... because it started out as a pilot. This is the first I've ever been a part of a project from the beginning," he said. "We're all very young. In this sense, we're all like brothers and sisters."
The unmarried actor hasn't forgotten his real family, though, which includes his younger sister Emily, a student at Bowling Green State University. Just last month Roerig could be found driving a motorhome with some cousins to Minnesota for a family reunion.
"He was always very good about coming home," his mother said. "He is just a really good, generous, big-hearted person. ... I hope that part of him never changes."
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