On Easter Sunday 1991, Ashleigh Murray gave her first performance. Her mother had taught her “probably some gospel song”and asked her to sing it in front of relatives Murray can no longer recall. What she remembers is that they were far from charmed by the idea of 3-year-old Murray’s show. They raised their eyebrows. They crossed their arms. They waited for her to be terrible. From then on, “any time I had to sing in front of anyone, I got the worst stage fright,” Murray says. “My throat would clench up, and I would be like, It’s not going to be good, because they expect it to be bad.”
It is a surprising twist then that her big break came in the form of Josie McCoy, the lead singer of the Pussycats on Riverdale. The 2017 pilot introduces Josie harmonizing with fellow Pussycats in a dimly lit music room. When Archie interrupts to ask about songwriting, Josie gives him an epic dressing-down that combines her ambitious vision with exasperated disbelief. Watching that scene, it’s impossible to believe that the actress who confidently lobbed the insult “Justin Ginger-lake” could doubt anything about herself, least of all her talent.
What got Murray, now 32, over her stage fright long enough to land the role of Josie? “Girl, I didn’t have a choice, and I was getting paid!” she says with a laugh. Before the audition, she was working odd jobs, with just $12 in her bank account. She’d appeared in only three short films and three TV roles. She was a woman going up against girls wearing pussycat ears. Even when she advanced to the next stage, flying to L.A. to test for the network, Murray didn’t set her heart on Josie. “I wasn’t focused on getting the role. I was focused on booking the room,” she says. “I knew that if this role is not meant for me, all of these creatives are going to be making something else. As long as they see what I’m capable of, somebody’s gonna call me back.”
They called. Murray was part of Riverdale’s central cast until Josie went on tour in season three, exiting the show, more or less, for good. This winter, the character turns up several years older and a little wiser in New York City on the new Archie Comics series Katy Keene. Josie is the main connection between the shows, but Murray believes Riverdale fans will love Keene for more than just the callbacks to their favorite characters. While Riverdale is “dark and dramatic,” Katy Keene—about four talented twentysomethings pursuing their big-city dreams—“is a breath of fresh air, a moment of relief.”
Despite Murray’s newfound success, self-acceptance is something she’s still working on; embracing it was her personal goal for last year. Moving from Vancouver, where Riverdale films, to New York to shoot Katy Keene has helped. Murray was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but considers New York City, where she lived for more than 11 years, home. Filming was a trip down memory lane. Her first day of shooting took place a 10-minute walk from her first studio apartment. Another scene was set around the corner from the theater where she did her first off-off-Broadway show. “Everywhere I shot the pilot brought me back to where I was at 19, at 23, at 25, just clawing to get to this table right now and tell you this entire story,” Murray says during our lunch in November. “It’s nice to be part of a project where I get to relive all of the trials and the triumphs, all the yeses and nos, all the love that I thought was going to be it and the heartbreak. Everything that life has to offer, I get to do it all over again.”
Being home has also helped Murray stop compartmentalizing and start focusing on self-care. Perhaps most important, it’s allowed her to be closer to her support system, now a much shorter trip away. Murray was raised by strong women, including her late grandmother, her beloved aunt, and two mothers.
“I am well-rounded because of them. I retreat to them for advice, for support, for any sort of reflection of myself,” she says. “They also give me permission to be angry. To be upset. To be hurt. We all know the stigma of an angry black woman, but the reality is anger is human nature. It’s not gender specific, and it’s not race specific. I can be angry the same way that anyone else can be, and my anger shouldn’t be modified or monitored or belittled simply because of the face it’s coming out of.”
Murray hasn’t yet decided on her goal for 2020, but she speculates it will be a variation on the theme of self-acceptance. Just as Josie left Riverdale to break out of her comfort zone, so too is Murray embarking on the next phase of her career. Her desire is to be kinder to herself. Less guarded. To believe what she’s doubted since she was three: that she can sing. And the more she shares her voice with the world, the more it will sit up and listen.
Special thanks to the Manderley Bar in Sleep No More at The McKittrick Hotel / Photography by Allie Holloway / Styling by Ryan Young / Hair by Takisha Sturdivant-Drew at Forward Artists / Makeup by Nick Barose at Exclusive Artists for Giorgio Armani Beauty / Video by Wanyi Jiang
This article appears in the March 2020 issue of Marie Claire.