If you stayed on CBS last Sunday night after the Super Bowl to watch the premiere of The Equalizer, then you saw a possible breakout star named Laya DeLeon Hayes.
Hayes plays the role of Delilah, the teenage daughter of Robyn McCall played by the Academy Award nominee and multi-hyphenate Queen Latifah.
It has been almost a year to the date when the 16-year-old rising performer got the big news that she bagged the role of the enigmatic former CIA operative’s smart and observant daughter.
“I was crying tears of joy,” Hayes told the Asian Journal, sharing that she had just gotten out of acting class when her agents called and shared the exciting news.
The audition process moved very quickly, according to the young star. She went in four times for the role, all in the span of a week. About two days after the call, she was on a plane to New York to film the pilot episode.
The teen actress is perhaps best known for voicing the titular role in the BAFTA, Emmy and Peabody Award-nominated animated series, “Doc McStuffins,” which earned her a NAACP Image Award nomination. She was just 9 years old when she booked the landmark role as the first Black/Fil-Am animation character on Disney Jr.
Hayes considers this as her biggest project to date, and that she has been fortunate in her career so far to have worked with some amazing actors on big projects but nothing compared like this.
“Considering how popular of a franchise The Equalizer is and how Queen Latifah is creating history by being the first female Equalizer really made me excited and honored to be a part of this amazing cast,” Hayes said, describing the eagerness she felt about the project.
It is no wonder then that the role of Delilah means so much to her. She recalls reading the script last year and really relating to the character: a girl who is in this weird time of growing up where she’s not a grown woman yet but also not a baby.
“Realistic roles for teenage biracial girls don’t come up often so, I was so ecstatic to see a role like Delilah come up. Not to mention, this is also my first lead in a live-action TV drama series,” she said. “[It is] something I’ve been wanting for a while. I’m constantly learning every single day on set, whether that’s from the crew or our amazing cast. I am soaking everything up.”
Tracing her roots
“I grew up very close with my Filipino side and I still am. Up until I was nine years old, I spent every summer with my grandparents,” Laya shared. “I visit my Filipino side at least once or twice a year and I’m constantly learning more about that side of my family every day.”
Her grandparents immigrated from the Philippines. Her grandfather, who passed away recently, was a retired U.S. Navy veteran. Both lolo and lola come from Pangasinan, he from Mangaldan and she from Umingan. They immigrated to America in the 70s.
They would cook lumpia, adobo, and pancit and Laya’s mom, Gina, still cooks some of those dishes for her.
“I have never been to the Philippines, but I would love to visit one day,” she said.
Growing up biracial
Born in Charlotte, NC and raised in Grand Prairie, Texas, Laya participated in school plays and talent shows, which powered her passion to perform. She trained at Hart and Soul studio in Dallas prior to moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.
“Growing up in a biracial family is something I’m extremely proud of. Growing up I didn’t realize what that meant or how interracial couples were looked at back in the day, because it just felt normal to me and it still does,” she said. “When you’re mixed, I think it can be challenging at times just figuring out who you are or where you fit.”
Being mixed has allowed her to become closer to her ancestry and embrace the two cultures that make up who she is; two cultures that she is constantly learning more about and extremely proud of.
And now, with this new show, she has this opportunity to represent.
Asked about how she feels that this role will be seen by young girls, particularly Asian/Filipino American and Black girls, she said, “It means the world to me. I really believe representation matters.”
Like regular viewers, Laya used to constantly find characters who look like her or are going through the same things like her. She believes that having characters that relate to the audience member makes them feel less alone and when the character looks like them, it’s even more of a connection.
“Art should depict real life and real stories. Knowing that young Asian/Filipino or biracial girls will look on their screen and see someone who looks like them is something I don’t take lightly,” she quipped. “I know when I was younger, I wanted to see a character like Delilah, one who’s not perfect and has a lot of growing to do but helps audiences know that that’s okay. You don’t get many roles for biracial girls that depict a realistic teenage girl just trying to come of age. That’s why this role means so much to me.”
An equal rights and social justice advocate, Laya utilizes her social media platforms to spread awareness and to help propel conversation forward. Also, she is passionate about women’s rights, body positivity and equality for all.
In her free time, Hayes enjoys rollerblading, baking with her friends and family, fashion, singing, traveling and sketch drawing. She loves theater, watching movies and creating films and videos. In the future, she hopes to develop, write, direct and produce her own projects.
The episodes of “The Equalizer” were shot during the pandemic. In fact, they’re still filming right now, something that Hayes is so grateful for.
“It’s definitely taken some getting used to, especially because of how collaborative the process of making a show can be. There were challenges in the beginning, but production and CBS really make sure everyone is safe and taken care of on set,” she said.
The cast and crew are tested regularly, they practice social distancing, and the production does a deep clean of the set every day. They also wear their masks everywhere and only take them off before they say action.
“We’re all working hard to not only make sure this a good show, but also a safe environment for everyone,” Hayes quipped.
Hayes describes working with Queen Latifah and everyone on this cast as amazing, specially since she has been watching them since she was a young girl.
“Queen is the coolest. She plays music on set and really knows how to have the intensity needed for a scene while also creating a light environment on set. She’s got cool stories too,” she shared. “It’s been really nice to have bonded with them during the time we have been filming. They’re masters at their craft and I’m learning so much simply by watching them.”
Laya’s additional television credits include “Just Add Magic,” “Liv & Maddie” and “Raven’s Home.” Also, she guest-starred in “Cougar Town,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Quantico” and “Code Black,” on the Network. Also, she appeared in the television film “Santa Hunters” and several national commercial campaigns.
The goal now is to continue building her already impressive body of work as she looks forward to grow every day and expand her career with each role and project that she gets to be a part of.