Laya DeLeon Hayes
Queen Latifah and Laya DeLeon Hayes
Laya DeLeon Hayes, Lorraine Toussaint
Imagine being 16 years old and finding yourself in a hit television series with Queen Latifah and Lorraine Toussaint.
That is exactly where young Laya DeLeon Hayes finds herself, and she does not take the moment for granted.
Hayes says, "It's very crazy. It's definitely a dream for me to even be on a show with two incredible women like them."
Hayes plays Delilah, the daughter of Queen Latifah's character, the titular The Equalizer, Robyn McCall. Toussaint plays her aunt Vi, a stabilizing presence in the girl's life.
She got to this point in the usual way, as she explains, "Always the good old audition process. I was going through pilot season really about a year and a half ago, early 2020. And I think any time during pilot season you're just wanting to find a script that you get excited about. And when I read The Equalizer I was so excited about it. I was glued to the script.
"And I had also watched some of the movies from 2018 and 2014 with Denzel Washington. And just imagining Queen Latifah as the first-ever Black woman to play The Equalizer was so exciting to me. And I wanted to find any way I could be a part of it. And I also really related to Delilah.
"So the audition process was very quick. I had about four auditions in the span of a week. And the last one was a chemistry read with Queen. And once I found out that I booked it and I got past the screaming and being so excited and crying for joy, about two days later, I was on a plane heading to New York to film the pilot. So it all moved very quickly."
Latifah and Hayes resemble each other to the point that Hayes says she has heard it even from family members.
They also have a strong relationship on and off screen. Hayes says, "I guess it's a testament to the writing, Joe Wilson, Terri Edda Miller, and Andrew Marlowe, they've written some great moments for Delilah and Robyn, a lot of moments where I feel like a lot of other moms who have teenage daughters, they can relate to as well.
"And also having Aunt Vi on the show with three Black women under one roof, it's just a very awesome and interesting dynamic that you don't really get to see a lot on television that they've really written into the show. And I think it's what's made people feel so connected to these characters because of it."
If Hayes sounds remarkably poised for one so young, it may be because she is already a seasoned veteran of the business.
She says, "I started acting at around seven years old. I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I was raised in Dallas, Texas. And when I lived in Texas that's kind of where I caught the acting bug, I guess you could say. I was never very sporty. I always loved performing. I really started with cheerleading originally, and then after that that progressed to dancing and then singing.
"And then one day I did the morning announcements at my school and it was put on camera for the whole school to see, and I just fell in love with it. We got to be different characters sometimes and different people from history. It was Black History Month one time and I had to dress up as Harriet Tubman and talk about Black history. And I just really enjoyed it.
"So I asked my parents one day if I could start acting lessons and they were super supportive of it. And they are the most supportive parents really. They're the reason that I'm even here. Once I started acting lessons I did it for about a year in Texas, and we had started planning to move to L.A. to start doing it for real because I was doing plays at school and wanting to do more theatrical work, as opposed to a lot of prep work that's in Dallas, Texas.
"And my parents kind of set everything up to where their job took them to Los Angeles. And once we got to L,A, we hit the ground running. And it's been nonstop for about seven or eight years since then."
It is not every child who dreams of an acting career who has such incredibly supportive parents, and Hayes recognized that. "[I'm] very lucky. And I think at that age too - I mean, all I knew at that time is I was eight years old, I loved to act, I loved to perform, and I wanted to be on the Disney Channel - you know, like simple things.
"And they really believed in me at that very young age. And I think about it because I mean, it didn't hit me when I was nine years old or when I was eight when I first started, but in retrospect, I think about it and I'm like, 'wow, they put a lot of trust and had a lot of belief and faith in me and this passion of what I wanted to do.'
"And they never once - they never once forced me to do any of this. This was something that I chose and that they just supported. And I'm really thankful for them.
"Even with the kinds of things that I did before acting, with dancing or with cheerleading, they really made sure that they supported me fully on those things. If I said I like cheerleading they were the ones that bought the cheerleading outfits for the whole cheerleading squad.
"When I was dancing and I was like, 'I want to go back on that stage. I want to go back on the stage,' they would say, 'You can do it. You can do anything that you put your mind to.' So honestly I think that's just in their nature. And it is very crazy though. It is very insane. And it's amazing. I'm very, very thankful for it."
Building relationships among a cast is an important element of a show's zeitgeist, and Hayes knows that she has found a wonderful group of women with whom to play. She notes, "A couple of years ago, I was a huge fan of The Fosters. And I remember when I found out Lorraine was going to be playing Aunt Vi and I was like, at the table read I have to tell her how much I loved her in The Fosters.
"And from that moment, she's really been so welcoming. She really welcomed me with open arms onto the set, especially with being the youngest on the show.
"She has a 16-year-old daughter as well. And I think she's just really been able to kind of relate to me and my family because it relates to hers as well. And she really is so kind and so talented. But also when she gets on the set is extremely professional and ready to bring whatever it is she needs to bring for the day.
"And that was the same to say about Queen as well. When I started the show with Queen Latifah again, we were supposed to film the pilot in March of last year, but ... you can imagine how that went down.
"So when we first started again, she was so welcoming. Queen, she was wanting to know what song she thinks Robyn and Delilah would listen to or create certain handshake or just things that we could both relate to that maybe me and my mom do as well. And then on top of that, she's just one of the coolest people ever.
"Even on set she's playing music and making sure that the vibe is right in the room and everybody's ready to work and ready to play.
"So it's been great to work with such talented women who I've admired for such a long time. I mean, Queen has really blazed the trail and so has Lorraine for a lot of young entertainers right now. And the fact that I can even be in their presence and learn from them, it really does mean the world to me."
Hayes realizes that her show is a reboot of an older series, but she doesn't approach it that way. "I didn't know much about the series, the 1980 series either," she says. "And I've watched a few episodes of it since then. I loved the movie too growing up. But it's different compared to the other two in the franchise. We really get to delve a lot deeper into her emotional life. And I think that's very interesting.
"And again, you're showing the power of a Black woman on television every Sunday and I think a lot of women are able to see themselves in Robyn McCall. And maybe they're not the equalizer the way that she's equalizing, but people are going out to work every single day and then having to come home to their daughters or their children or even single moms too.
"We really get to represent a whole bunch of people on our show in our main cast and in our guest cast as well.
"So that means a lot. The fact that other people can see themselves in these characters and relate to the show I think that's a wonderful thing and why people are resonating with it."
Hayes is thrilled that the show has been renewed for a second season, and she is looking forward to it as much as the audience. She says, "It's so exciting I mean to just be a part of that because a lot of our storylines that they write on the show are really stripped from the headlines.
"I think with today's world climate and how the world has been, I mean, even just the past year and a half with the pandemic and then with the rise of protests with Black Lives Matter or even with Stop Asian Hate, I think people are looking for something that they can relate to and see on television that makes them have a bit more hope in people.
"The Equalizer is all about leveling the playing field and treating people equally. And the fact that we're just doing that on the show I think a lot of people are resonating with that. And we get to do it on CBS, which is crazy. People have to stay hungry for it. Each week is something new, and it's not you can have it all in one sitting. You have to wait and see what happens each episode. "
For her future beyond The Equalizer, she has high goals, "For my career I have a lot of hope, I have a lot of dreams. I mean, this was definitely a big one. A dream of mine was having a series regular role on a television series. When that was in my wheelhouse I really loved to do drama. So after this I'm hoping to do more movies. I want to star in films, work with directors like Spike Lee and Jerry Jenkins and Wes Anderson.
"And also I've been fortunate to work with such great actors. I'd love to just keep putting out as much good work as possible. Yeah, I want to be a superstar. And I'm hoping to just go at this pace that I've been going on for the past few years now."
The Equalizer airs on CBS.