Laya DeLeon Hayes has a dream. “I want to be a superstar,” says the 16-year-old actress, her voice full of infectious enthusiasm.
“I want to work with actors and directors who have inspired me. I just really want to keep going on this path and find fulfillment from acting because it truly is a passion,” she tells EBONY. Her journey started a mere eight years ago—for her, half a lifetime—and today it’s led to a role on CBS’ new hit TV redux of The Equalizer.
As Delilah, daughter of Queen Latifah’s titular protagonist, DeLeon Hayes gets to act out, in typical teen fashion, during scenes with the award-winning actress and rapper whom she puts at the top of the list of her inspirations. “She’s incredibly talented. She knows how to just bring the intensity and her light to set every single day,”she gushes.
The young actress’ deep dive into performing began when she was around eight years old. It started with dance, and once onstage, she says, she “just felt alive.” Next she took up singing, and then found herself reading the morning announcements at the school she attended in Grand Prairie, Texas. “It was put on camera so the whole school could see," she says. "A couple months later I asked my parents if I could start acting lessons.”
After a year of lessons, her parents—both from the Carolinas— wanting to support her in her new passion, packed the family up and headed to California.
“When we moved to L.A., everything started [happening] very fast. I was very fortunate,” she says. “I got my first commercial [an NFL Play 60 promo with J.J. Watt] about a month after being out in L.A., and six months later I got the audition for Doc McStuffins.” DeLeon Hayes won an NAACP Image Award for the animated Disney series on which she voiced the main character from 2014 to 2020.
“I never knew voiceover was a thing. My whole goal [had been] to do live-action, and I didn’t know I could do voiceover,” she says. “It was new territory for me, but when I got the audition, I already had heard about the show and I was so excited—it was one I really wanted.”
DeLeon Hayes father offered her a bit of incentive in her quest for the job. “[He said] if I booked the role of Doc he would take me to Disney Aulani in Hawaii, and I was like, ‘Ooh, I really have to book it now,’” she laughs. “So Doc wound up being the first ever voiceover project I booked, she recounts, “and I did end up going to Hawaii—me and my whole entire family.”
Going from voiceover back to live-action was child’s play for the young star, who says the bigger adjustment is starting in live-action and then transitioning to voiceover. “You have to express so much emotion from behind a microphone as opposed to someone actually seeing your face,” she explains.
In the Equalizer, which is based on the 1980s TV show in which a disenchanted government operative sets out clandestinely to balance the scales and bring justice to the little man, and is set in NYC, DeLeon Hayes is getting plenty of opportunity to express herself. She’s even taken a page from her onscreen mom’s musical playbook during the season’s second episode, where she got the opportunity to rap onstage in Times Square.
“That Times Square performance is probably my favorite moment of filming,” she says. “We had so much fun that day. We got to perform with the Hezekiah Walker Youth Choir, and they were awesome and so welcoming. And, I got to rap for the first time!” She adds, “I got to get out of my comfort zone.
“The [executive producers] Terri [Edda Miller] and Andrew [W. Marlowe] put a lot of trust in me to just go for it and have a lot of fun, and I even got the approval from Queen after the performance. She was like, ‘Girl, you did that. You did that!’ I [felt] if I got Queen’s approval, then I’m good.”
DeLeon Hayes says one of the other things Latifah models that she will take with her going forward in her career is having her own opinions on set. "Queen is very vocal [about] making sure that what we say, or what we do, always feels right no matter what the writing in the script may be. She really uses that as a blueprint, and I’m observing every single thing and soaking it up.”
While she’s developing as an artist, DeLeon Hayes recognizes that her art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The actress is an advocate for social justice and lists Yara Shahidi, Greta Thunberg and Amanda Gorman among some of the contemporary thought leaders who inspire her. “My peers, people I know and some of my friends, really inspire me to get my message across and my voice heard as well,” she says.
DeLeon Hayes, who is Black and Filipino, also acknowledges that she's motivated to use her social media platforms “to really stress that equality matters.” She believes that teens who want to advocate for change can begin by first educating themselves. “Reading up and making sure you really know your facts is vital in making sure we get the right message out there,” she says. “It’s important that we know what we’re talking about because we’re the next generation that’s going to be voting.” In her own way, Laya DeLeon Hayes is taking on the mantle as an equalizer.
“The Equalizer” airs 8 p.m. (ET) Sundays on CBS.