Laila Haley, 16, is a student at Sherrard High School — but she’s also a worldwide celebrity.
Haley, who lives in Viola, spent last weekend signing autographs in Ottumwa, Iowa, where the 2015 movie “Sinister 2” was screened during the Halloweenapalooza festival.
Laila was 12 years old when she won a role in “Sinister 2” after going to her first movie audition ever.
In the movie, she plays a ghost child, Emma, who torments children who move into a rural farmhouse alongside a demonic entity that persuades children to murder their families.
“I was confident I was a good actress, (but) I was still really young and inexperienced,” Laila said, recalling that first audition. “I went into it to do my best and see what happened.” Before that audition, she had appeared in numerous musicals and plays around the Quad-Cities area.
“In my audition, they told me I was terrifying, so I wasn’t sure how to react to that at first,” she said with a laugh. “If my normal face is scary ... what is this makeup going to do to me? It turned out really cool.”
Her favorite part of filming, aside from acting, was the special effects, she said.
“On set I got to sit for about three hours to get my face all done in these crazy latex cracks,” she said.
The movie was filmed over the course of a year in Chicago and two weeks in Los Angeles.
“The L.A. crew got tired of being in Illinois because of our weather. The one scene we didn’t film in Chicago was the scene with the cornfield. They ended up shipping corn to L.A. to do the scene!” she said, adding that she and the other Chicagoland actors laughed about that on set.
Thinking back to how she felt as a young kid filming a horror movie, Haley said the scariest part was seeing the demonic character Bughuul getting his makeup done. She said the light from his phone while he played Candy Crush cast an ominous glow on his face, and “it was terrifying! We were all so little. The youngest of us was 8. It turned out to be fun, not scary.”
Laila said it was difficult at first to deal with the cult following she garnered because of her role.
“A lot of the kids and I, we had never dealt with having people know about us outside of our hometown,” she said, adding that she was contacted by people from all over the world via Facebook and Instagram. At the time she wasn’t involved with social media, and others tried to create accounts impersonating her.
“It was kind of scary, but once we got it all figured out, it was really cool,” she said. “It kind of amplified what my platform was and what I could do with that social impact.”
Laila said she now has friends in several other countries.
Since the release of “Sinister 2” in August 2015, Laila has done two local films, horror movie “Overdue” and another one by director Stephen Folker that she is not yet able to discuss.
“‘Overdue’ is another scary movie about a librarian that goes rogue and starts murdering people with overdue books,” she said.
Before auditioning for the part of Emma, Laila was named Miss Illinois Outstanding Preteen in 2013. She has competed in several pageants and currently holds the title of Miss Quad Cities Outstanding Teen. She will compete next summer for Miss Illinois Outstanding Teen.
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And her talents extend beyond acting.
Last summer she released her first fully illustrated children’s book, “Super Heart Heroes ABC’s,” as part of her awareness and fundraising initiative “Show Us Your Heart.” It’s intended to teach children how to take care of their hearts, and the consequences of not doing so.
When Laila was young, her aunt passed away at age 27 of congestive heart failure, and more recently, her father narrowly survived a heart attack.
“It’s been something that we’ve unfortunately had to deal with a lot in our lives. ... And I don’t want other families to have to deal with that, especially kids,” she said.
“If you reach someone at a young age, then they can grow up taking care of themselves and live a happier, healthier, more heart-awesome life,” she said, “That’s what ‘Show Us Your Heart’ is about.”
Her book is available on Amazon and is in the Viola Library system. Proceeds from sales go to donating a copy of the book to a hospital, library or elementary school. “We’ve been able to do that a lot recently, which has been amazing,” Laila said.
She said she planned to attend Savannah College of Art and Design with the goal of becoming a children’s book illustrator. “So I can continue illustrating children’s books about important issues, but in a fun way that gets kids involved in a way they aren’t even knowing they are learning, they’re just having fun,” she said.
Another fundraiser she conducts is “Faces by Laila.” She attends events and paints children’s faces for donations. Proceeds go to the Children’s Miracle Network, and she has raised almost $900 since last summer.
“It’s something I can do that connects with and helps children that also raises money for children,” she said.
In the spring she does an “Egg My House” fundraiser. She and her family fill plastic eggs with candy and hide them outside the homes of those who donate money. “We’re sort of the Easter bunnies. I call it the Bunny Brigade,” she said with a laugh.
Laila said she had been involved with theater productions since she was in first or second grade.
“The Sherrard School District has, all throughout my life, been a really fantastic environment for me to grow into an actress and artist,” she said. The support began in elementary school “when my amazing music teacher, Ms. Casey, first encouraged me to go out and audition for my very first musicals in the Q-C area,” she said.
“My friends and teachers cheered me on through my first feature film and continue to be some of my most enthusiastic supporters now. I love my Sherrard family. They’ve stuck with me through a lot, and I’m so glad that I’ve gotten to grow up here!” Haley said.
Now she’s supporting little sister Marley Haley, 11, a sixth-grader at Matherville Intermediate, as she pursues her own entertainment endeavors. The younger Haley has appeared in a Dairy Queen commercial and an episode of “Law and Order SVU.” She auditioned in front of Steven Spielberg for “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.”
“She was the top person in America to be considered for casting,” Haley said, adding that a child from England was chosen for the role instead.
Haley hopes to continue her acting career, but she said at her age it’s difficult to find roles. “Hollywood doesn’t typically cast teenagers as teenage roles; they do adults in teenage roles. ... But we’re still looking. I love acting — it’s one of my passions — so I’ll continue to do it.”
Her advice to the next generation is: “Nothing is impossible. And that sounds so cliched, but it isn’t. If you look for the opportunities and keep your mind opened and your heart focused on your dreams, anything is really possible.”