Rome cheers a native’s part in ‘90 Minutes in Heaven’

We like it when a hometown girl makes it big, so Friday night’s opening of “90 Minutes in Heaven” was huge. Bigger than the preview showing the day before. Bigger than even the world premiere held Sept. 1 at the Fox Theatre.

Elizabeth Hunter had come home to Rome and the people who love and admire her the most. Friends and supporters from school, from her dance studio, from the community theater that has helped hone and nurture her acting chops, enough to pack the Movies at Berry Square like sardines in a can, were all there.

The chance to see her on the big screen left them giddy with excitement, and who could blame them.

Elizabeth plays Nicole in "90 Minutes in Heaven," the true story of Don Piper, who was critically injured in a 1989 collision and pronounced dead before returning to life. Nicole is Piper's daughter.

And so on Friday, it seemed the entire town of Rome had turned out to celebrate a native daughter. It was a heady moment for the 12-year-old actress, a little piece of, well, heaven here on earth.

“‘It was really fun to see so many people from different parts of my life come out to support me,” Elizabeth said after the opening. “From my friends and teachers to my very first theater director.”

People the seventh-grader hadn’t seen in years were there.

“It made me so happy to know that even if I spend time away to pursue my dream, I have all these people at home cheering me on,” Elizabeth said.

She has been acting since 2010, when she started performing with Rome Little Theatre on the same stage where her great-grandmother performed.

Elizabeth was 7 then and after a year of playing, among other things, a girl in “Oklahoma,” a kitten in “Cats” and an orphan in “Annie,” she knew she wanted to be an actress full time.

That’s hard to do when you still have school and homework and chores, but her mom, Allison, obliged.

“She did research and helped me get an agent, and it went from there,” Elizabeth said.

There wasn’t one specific moment when the acting bug bit. It happened gradually with each character. The more she realized she could embody someone else, the more she fell in love with the craft.

“I like that you can completely put yourself in a character’s shoes and the cool feeling you get from that,” Elizabeth said.

Sure, that takes skill, but she has learned that sometimes life has a way of preparing you for your next role even when you don’t realize it. It happened with “90 Minutes.”

Elizabeth was pursuing her dream, landing roles on television and the big screen in ABC's "Nashville," CW's "Hart of Dixie," in the MTV series "Finding Carter" and in the movie "Jersey Boys".

She was in Los Angeles auditioning for another role last October when her world stopped for a moment. Elizabeth’s grandmother, Louisa “Weezie” Hunter, had suddenly died.

It was her first brush with death and the pain of losing someone, of never seeing them again.

“It wasn’t until Christmas that it really hit that she wasn’t here anymore,” she said.

Elizabeth couldn’t remember a time when Christmas Day didn’t begin with Weezie. Christmas 2014 was a first.

In January, Elizabeth was invited to audition to play Piper’s daughter, Nicole. She wasn’t much different from Nicole Piper. They were both 12. Both strong. Both natural caretakers.

Nicole had only come close to losing her father. The pain of losing her grandmother was still weighing on Elizabeth. She knew what Nicole must have felt. She felt good about her audition. Two weeks later, her agent called Allison Hunter, who called Elizabeth’s acting coach who called Elizabeth with the good news. She had just landed another role on the big screen.

“I was super happy,” Elizabeth said.

Filming started in February. By March, "90 Minutes in Heaven" was pretty much done.

“It’s a really inspiring story,” Elizabeth said. “I was really happy with how it turned out.”

It helped that both Don and Nicole spent time on the set. Both talked openly about their experiences and welcomed questions from the cast.

Don Piper has said he wanted to share his story to help people understand heaven is a real place. Not only can you go there but you can have a meaningful life while on the way there.

There’s a lot of skepticism around stories of people dying, visiting heaven and then returning.

Piper says his story is different because he’s the only one to date who has been gone as long as he has and lived to tell about it.

Scripture is filled with resurrection stories, from Lazarus to a widow’s son to Jesus.

Piper doesn’t try to explain it. He just knows it happened to him.

That’s enough for Elizabeth Hunter. She always believed there was a heaven and Don Piper’s 90 minutes in heaven quashed all doubt.

But here’s the best part: “It definitely assured me that it’ll be OK and I’ll see (Weezie) again in heaven.”