Young Kiwi star Elizabeth’s dedicated shave

The Mountain’s young star put her locks on the line to deliver a powerful performance
Photos: Juliette Drysdale

Any 11-year-old would be daunted by their debut acting gig. So imagine the pressure of that first part being a core role in a movie no less.

Add to that the storyline of playing a cancer patient who has lost their hair and agreeing to shave your own long locks… But Elizabeth Atkinson took it all in her stride.

“I’m very proud of her,” says mum Cheri-Lee. “Elizabeth has been very fortunate not to have experienced any family members that have gone through cancer. But the storyline is the big C. We wanted to make sure we were giving honour to that and being respectful to that community.”

Her whānau helped prepare Elizabeth as much as possible. But, there was only a short time from being cast to filming The Mountain in Taranaki.

Elizabeth with The Mountain co-stars Reuben and Terence.

“The biggest thing was obviously shaving her hair. In our research. this came across as the hardest thing for many children going through chemo treatment,” says Cheri-Lee.

Elizabeth could have worn a cap to hide her long mane, but the now 12-year-old chose to be shaven to be true to her character, Sam.

“I thought it’d be a really cool opportunity to show kids and even adults that they can be confident,” says the Waikato star. “That they can do anything and they’re not going through illness or cancer by themselves.”

To honour her decision, The Mountain make-up artist Frankie Karena painstakingly plaited Elizabeth’s hair. Then, a cutting ceremony saw her parents and director Rachel House all help to cut her locks.

For strength, Elizabeth wore her taonga. A necklace and earrings that were a gift from her church, made by a carver, before filming started. The necklace also makes a small feature in the film. 

“The most powerful experience was actually being in this make-up trailer with everybody there supporting Elizabeth and the mana that she exuded throughout that whole process,” recalls her mum. “It was incredibly brave.

“My husband Mark shaved his hair. So did I. That was important for us to awhi [support] Elizabeth and give her the strength by going through that ourselves.”

Actress Elizabeth Atkinson before and after the big shave
Elizabeth clutched her pounamu necklace for strength.

And Elizabeth opted to donate her locks to Christchurch organisation Hair Collect, which sends hair to Uganda to help transform communities.

“The producers were amazing,” Cheri-Lee says. “They truly appreciated that whole process.”

The Mountain is the heartfelt story of three children on a mission to find healing under the watchful eye of Taranaki Maunga, led by Sam, who believes the mountain will not only cure her, but will give her the identity she craves. She picks up two wayward accomplices along the way – Mallory and Bronco, played by Reuben Francis and Terence Daniel.

The opportunity to be in the film was one Cheri-Lee encouraged as she loved acting in her school years, but her parents steered her into a career in law instead.

“It was always an awesome experience,” she enthuses. “Just to have an avenue where you could have that form of artistic expression, to be onstage and perform, was a really good outlet for putting your energy into something and then to get the feedback from the audience.

“Elizabeth’s got a beautiful opportunity to pursue dreams like this. It’s not so much a career – it’s really the fun of it and enjoying something that makes you happy and feel good. There’s so many ways of weaving in these passions with jobs. So I’m just trying to teach her ways of being dynamic. She still loves playing football, she loves design and other kinds of art.”

Indeed, Elizabeth plans to pull back on her regular dance commitments, trading hip-hop, ballet and jazz for more time to pursue football and drama.

With mum Cheri-Lee, dad Mark and brother Mikaere.

“Acting is definitely something I want to keep doing,” says Elizabeth, whose brother Mikaere is eight. “I even want to have a look at what it’s like filming outside of New Zealand.”

The seven weeks she spent filming in Taranaki involved regular tutoring as she transitioned from primary to high school. And the experience was educational too.

“Seeing Taranaki clearly with the sun rising was very beautiful,” tells Elizabeth. “I definitely felt God’s presence. I whakapapa [ancestry] back to Taranaki – that is where my [ancestors] are. Ngati Mutunga, which [director] Rachel is also from.”

For Cheri-Lee, those connections made it more authentic.

“The experience with a Kiwi cast and crew. You felt looked after, you felt the manaakitanga [kindness] and the support from everybody,” she enthuses. “As a mum, to know that she’s being looked after, I felt really comfortable with that wairua [spirit] of the whole film.”

The Mountain is in cinemas now.

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