From Florida Tech to an Acting Role on Stranger Things
For many Florida Tech students, the ultimate destination is space. Or the depths of the ocean. Or the seat of the cockpit.
For Salem Murphy’86, it was the big screen.
Known by many as the Hawkins High School principal from “Stranger Things,” Murphy’s journey to professional acting, directing and producing has included many twists, turns, detours and stops—including one at Florida Tech.
Murphy grew up in Trinidad until she was 10 years old, when she and her family immigrated to the United States.
“Being surrounded, as I was, by different cultures on a small island and by a family of entrepreneurs, including my mom and dad, it instilled in me a certain amount of grit and the power of hope and curiosity and appreciation about other people and cultures,” Murphy says.
While her original artistic interest was in music and singing, it was the group effort toward a common goal present in all the arts that attracted her to the field and made her feel like she belonged.
“The arts aided in my assimilation because, as a young child, moving to a new culture, it gave me an outlet and a way to understand the culture of a new country—and me in it,” she says.
Forgoing her original desire to attend The Julliard School for opera singing, Murphy opted to follow her sister’s footsteps to Florida Tech, where she majored in business/finance.
Despite working to pay her way through college, Murphy found time to join the crew team and serve as a resident assistant in Southgate Apartments.
“Both of those activities, well, I could write an essay on what they meant to me,” Murphy says.
“Being part of those aspects of my college life and being around the team and people involved pushed me in ways and brought out capabilities I was unaware I had at the time.”
And while many may not see the correlation between finance and acting, Murphy has found the knowledge she gained through her degree beneficial to her success.
“My degree gave me the understanding that money was simply a tool and an awareness of how to use that tool,” she says. “The course work at FIT was also demanding, which offered an appreciation for time management and commitment that serves me well.”
After college, where she met her now husband, Steve Murphy ’84, Murphy put her acting dreams on hold while she pursued another passion: raising her family.
“I chose to put my acting career on simmer while raising our children in Florida—I say ‘choice’ because I see it like that, and I enjoy being a mom and wanted to be it fully,” Murphy says. “Now, once our kids were in college, it was my turn.”
In 2016, Murphy took the “leap of faith” for her career when she and her husband moved to New Jersey, where they live today.
She landed her role as the principal on “Stranger Things” in 2016 before the show had aired, appearing in some early episodes in season 1, including The Vanishing of Will Byers, The Weirdo on Maple Street, and The Body
“Everyone enjoyed the concept of the show so much that the atmosphere was energetic, which added to the anticipation of a new show,” Murphy says. “By the time I got on set, I believe it was already getting some press, since the air date was around the corner.”
In fact, when she first arrived on set, she didn’t yet know what the show was really about. When she started asking questions and learned that the show was allegedly inspired by the Montauk Project, she was thrilled.
“Now, whether it was/is true, being a fan of this type of suspense and tales of ‘government experiments,’ well, it added to the thrill and mystique of being on set and part of the show,” she says.
Aside from her “Stranger Things” role, Murphy is likely best known for playing Aida in the 2019 movie “Abe,” about a young Brooklyn boy who cooks to unite his half-Israeli, half-Palestinian family, and Salma Stevens in the 2017 short film “Grape Leaves,” which she also produced, co-wrote and co-directed, and which she considers one of the projects of which she is most proud.
“Wearing all the hats on a set was eye-opening because in one minute, I’m being asked about budget and time. In the next, I need to get in character for the scene.” Murphy says. “It was my personal story and perspective on a difficult time, and I’m most proud of the fact that it got finished and did well in some festivals.”
As is the case for most “starving actors”—a phrase Murphy assures is not just a cliché—not every one of her projects, roles and auditions has been so successful.
“It’s hard to put into words how much rejection an actor goes through. To muster up the excitement, drive and pull all skill sets together for the next go-around can be exhausting,” she says. “Dealing with rejection is tricky because, of course, I want to be successful and get to bigger heights in my career. But I deal with it by remembering that rejection is subjective and no reflection of me, how I am or what I’m about—as long as I know I’ve prepared fully.”
What keeps her going is the support of her family and her belief in the power that the arts have to offer perspective and influence society.
Whether she is writing something significant to her or bringing someone else’s words to life through her acting, Murphy aims to generate meaningful conversations.
“It has to be about more than ‘making it big’ for me, because this industry can spit you out quickly,” she says. “There are many films/shows that reveal something that causes me to reflect … When done well, it either challenges me to think differently or validates and prompts me to stay curious. That’s the power it has.”
Movie: Oldie but goodie – “12 Angry Men” Current – “Man Who Knew Infinity and Lion”
TV show: “The Crown”
Musical artist: Sting
Restaurant: Still looking
Dessert: Dark chocolate
City in America: Besides NY? Any small, vibrant, quaint town—recently visited Newport, Rhode Island and loved it.
Quote: “It’s me who chose from the beginning to lose the world in the hopes of winning myself.”—Ghada al-Samman