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A Cut Above the Rest: Sukena Shah & The Mountain


Written by Thomas Giblin (he/him) | @thegreengiblin | Entertainment Editor

Fern Sutherland (Wendy) and Sukena Shah (Peachy) in Rachel House's The Mountain

Sukena Shah walked out of her audition for The Mountain. "I'm sorry, I'm not doing this." She wasn't willing to cut her hair for the role of Peachy. We talk over Zoom. Shah’s background is surprisingly bare. The wall is plain—a lifeless shade of grey. There's no hint of her personality, which is effervescent. The nineteen-year-old has the clarity of mind you wouldn't expect from a young actor who has barely graced our screens before. She's remarkably open when talking about how she got the role of Peachy in The Mountain. The film is acclaimed actor Rachel House's (Ngāti Mutunga, Te Atiawa, Kāi Tahu) directorial debut - a heartfelt, crowd-pleasing drama in which three rangatahi embark on an epic journey to find peace and solace under the watchful eye of Taranaki Maunga.

Shah was a theatre kid at New Plymouth Girls' High School. She's of Pakistani descent and lived in Scotland, Iran and Egypt, before moving to Aotearoa when she was eight years old. The actor participated each year in school plays. It wasn't a teacher turned mentor, or a seminal experience onstage which steered her towards screen acting. Instead, it was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The novel tells the mystical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy in search of a worldly treasure. Along the way, on a journey of self-discovery, he learns the importance of listening to your heart and following your dreams.

Shah's hair is one of her striking features. It flows like molasses down over her shoulders, but for the role of Peachy, she knew she would have to cut it. How short? Shah didn't know exactly, but it didn’t matter - she had already ruled themselves out of getting cast. "I was so convinced I was not going to get it," they say. In the audition waiting room with the "really freaking cool people" who were also going for the role, Shah promised to make edits for whoever got cast as Peachy. Cue the 1975's 'About You' or Phoebe Bridgers's 'Scott Street'. She reached the final audition and asked: "How short do you want me to cut my hair?" House showed her a picture of a woman who was "virtually bald", and Shah left the audition. She nervously laughs when retelling this story. One hand partially covers her face as she sinks into her chair. If you put Peachy, who has a shaggy mullet, and Shah side-by-side, you'd think they're different people.

The actor made an impression on House, despite walking out of the audition. One day, towards the end of her final year at high school, Shah got the call that House wanted her for the part. I bring up how her performance in the film contrasts with how she appears over Zoom - Peachy in The Mountain is stone-faced and frank, but Shah is expressionate, a ball of nervous energy struggling to be bound by Zoom's aspect ratio. She queries how I know so much about Peachy: Amusingly, I've seen The Mountain, but Shah has yet to see the film she stars in. The actor plans to finally watch the film at its gala screening in a few week's time.

As a friend of protagonist Sam, a fearless young girl with cancer, Peachy is a friend and confidant. She aids in her escape from the hospital by making thinly veiled excuses for Sam's absence. Along the way, as she attempts to trek up the steep slopes of Taranaki Maunga, Sam joins forces with two other misfits, Mallory and Bronco. When Wendy discovers her daughter's plan to conquer the maunga, Peachy is a reluctant accomplice. Together, they must track down the roving escapee; luckily, the pair know where Sam is heading.

Taranaki Maunga is The Mountain's central metaphor— its towering peak, flowing hills, and dense bush represent the characters' journey towards self-discovery. Sam hopes that Taranaki Maunga will cure her cancer and connect her with her whakapapa. Mallory, the new kid on the block, is searching for friendship after losing his mother. Bronco, "a guardian of Papatuanuku, our OG mother," claims to be a run-away. His father is too busy to notice he's gone. The adventure towards the peak of Taranaki Maunga represents an inner journey of transformation and follows a trope of Aoteroa cinema. Runaway, Goodbye Pork Pie, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Loop Track and The Lord of the Rings all embrace the monomyth. A physical beginning and an end to a narrative. If you've seen the trailer for The Mountain, you'll know that it references Gandalf's iconic line, "You shall not pass!"

Shah has fond memories of shooting on Taranaki Maunga, despite the closest bathroom being an eight-hour hike away and no time being available to nip to the bush. Her first day on set was at the base of the maunga: "I was nervous because this was my first take ever. I'd never done any projects on TV or on screen before, so it was my first time being filmed." Another memory sticks in her mind: "We had to get a helicopter up to Pouakai hut and we had to hike. I was wearing Doc Martens, which I hadn't broken in yet." Despite the pains of stiff leather and blistered heels, it was a day Shah will never forget. "The mountain, all the scenery and the amazing people."

The Mountain was shot on location on Taranaki Maunga. House wanted audiences everywhere "to see some of the wisdom and magic that exists within Te Taiao, the natural world." She ensured the cast and crew respected this world when on the maunga. Shah remembers the strict rules they had on set. One day, during production, they were shooting a sequence on a bridge, and there wasn't a moment when the cast and crew stepped off it. The flora and fauna of Taranaki Maunga, an ancient living ancestor, was well looked after.

The actor had lived under the shadow of Taranaki Maunga until she moved to Tāmaki Makaurau for university. Shah is now doing a conjoint degree in law and fine arts while still working as an actor. They were up at 05:00 am this morning to go to set. At the start of her degree, she had to balance playing the role of Peachy in her first feature and the anxiety of adapting to university life. Shah was flying in and out of Tāmaki Makaurau every week to shoot The Mountain. "Where did that girl go?" her classmates would wonder. 

Now, Shah seems to have settled into a rhythm and adapted to her busy life in a new city. You may have seen the actor on Shortland Street as Gigi Arshad, but she can't reveal what else is in the pipeline. Don't expect her to stick around Tāmaki Makaurau for long. "I'm a Sagittarius, and I like to travel," Shah says. Before she jets off, you can catch her in The Mountain.

The Mountain will be released nationwide on March 28th.

Illustration by Chloe Bagayas (she/her) @lilclodoodles | Contributing Artist


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