When Hayley Faith Negrin was auditioning for the lead in the new PBS Kids show Peg + Cat, she’d race around her kitchen in character signing “Down by the Bay,” which she’d learned for the role. Her mother, Jara, a former child actor, remembers thinking, If she doesn’t get this part, I don’t know what she’d be right for! Hayley was born to be Peg.
Three callbacks later, her destiny was sealed. Hundreds of girls auditioned for the role, but the creators, Billy Aronson (Rent, Postcards from Buster) and Jen Oxley (Little Bill, The Wonder Pets!), said the final choice was easy. “We loved how Hayley sounded like a real kid, not too polished or over-rehearsed,” says Oxley. “She blew us all away with her quirky voice and raw talent.”
The pint-sized Hayley, whose golden-red halo of curls is a perfect complement to her sunny personality, is a natural. Every other week she and her mother drive down to the production studio in Brooklyn from their home in Weston for two four-hour days of performing. They overnight at a hotel with an indoor pool and swim, go out to dinner and sometimes travel into Manhattan to shop. “I love Bloomingdale’s!” says ten-year-old Hayley. She also loves her new routine, has worked out a system for assignments with her teacher and is the opposite of a high-maintenance method actor. “I just go in there and do my voice,” she says.
“She does like her snacks,” adds Jara, who brings a big pink tote bag filled to brimming with apples, grapes, baby carrots, tuna salad, Smart Puffs, a Charleton Chew and a whole lot more. “She eats enough for sixteen kids.”
Joking aside, the show, which debuted October 7 on PBS and airs every day (check local listings), is an adorable animated show for young children with a high-minded mission. It aims to remedy the “learning gap” in grade-school students who are underperforming in math (a whopping 60 percent, according to national assessments). Aronson and Oxley teamed up to create Peg + Cat to address that problem—in a fun, age-appropriate way, of course. “The show focuses on helping kids build math skills and learning to think about larger math concepts,” says Oxley. “Peg also promises to be a positive role model for girls, encouraging them to explore math. We try to make sure her voice is really relatable. Hayley is great with helping to keep it authentic.”
Authenticity is an important part of the show. The initial illustrations are hand-drawn, but that’s where the simplicity stops. Fourteen animators, in New York and Toronto, use high-tech computer programs to animate each episode’s two eleven-minute storylines. Hayley performs her part in a small soundproof booth right inside the animation studio, with Oxley coaching from a few feet away. Outside the booth, two technicians and Aronson give feedback on every take. Later, the animation teams will synch up the characters’ movements with the dialog.
While Hayley is thrilled at playing Peg and having her voice heard by millions, she’s a normal kid in every other way. At school, her favorite subjects are reading and writing—she especially loves telling stories—and she loves sports, particularly lacrosse. Her other favorite activity: “hanging out with my friends, family and Clyde, our Jack Russell terrier.” Asked if it’s hard to get into Peg’s head, Hayley shakes her mane and giggles. “She’s really not that different from me,” she says. “Well, except that her best friend’s a cat.”