Some of the following may be considered as spoiler material for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
It might surprise many fans of Star Wars: The Force Awakens to find out that Peter Mayhew, the actor who played the mighty Chewbacca in four previous episodes of the Star Wars saga, wasn’t the full time Chewbacca in Episode VII. No, he wasn’t redone in CG, he was actually replaced by 29-year-old Finnish actor, Joonas Suotamo.
Well, replaced might be too strong of a word.
“Fill in,” “Stunt double,” or “Understudy” might be better. Those terms might be more accurate, and yet, not quite precise either.
As it turns out, Peter Mayhew, who die-hard Star Wars fans know as the English gentleman behind the furry Wookie costume of Chewbacca, is now 71-years-old and uses a cane. As such, it would have been difficult for Peter to take on many of the action sequences that Chewbacca is portrayed taking on in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As such, the producers brought in a “ringer,” so to speak, to play Chewbacca for those more challenging physical bits in the film.
What’s nice about Joonas, is that the young man seems to be taking the iconic role of Chewbacca very seriously.
Suotamo reportedly worked on the Star Wars: The Force Awakens set for five months after answering a casting call for a specific height requirement (seven feet) and a specific eye color, (blue). When Suotamo sent in his audition tape, he was told to record himself performing a “caveman” impression, according to Business Insider. When he did, Joonas said that he had no idea what movie he was auditioning for.
So, how does an almost seven-foot-tall Finnish basketball player get the acting bug?
The 29-year-old Suotamo went to college at Penn State from 2005 to 2008. More recently, the Chewbacca stand-in has played for his hometown basketball team just outside of Helsinki. However, Suotamo has always had a love of acting since high school. In fact, he even graduated from Penn State with a film degree, but his size made it hard to give any serious thought to landing any major roles.
“I loved doing theater in high school. But I just didn’t believe my chances to get any acting part were possible because of my size, so I studied more behind the camera.”
Besides playing basketball in his country, Suotamo was selling insurance over the phone to help start up a video-production company of his own.
When Suotamo was told that he’d received the part, he was rather astonished to see the Star Wars logo on the contract he signed. However, he assumed that he’d been picked up to play a new character in Episode VII, not one of the most iconic characters in film history.
After realizing that he would be playing Chewbacca, Suotamo immediately began intensely studying the character by re-watching the original Star Wars trilogy over and over. Joonas says that he was an immense fan of the original films. His father opened up the Star Wars universe to him by showing him the films when he was very young.
Once he got to the set, Suotamo and original Chewbacca, Peter Mayhew, became inseparable. Mayhew talked to Suotamo for hours and hours about the intracacies of Han Solo’s co-pilot.
Suotamo went farther. After getting his makeup applied in the morning (the black around his eyes so that you can’t see his skin through the Chewbacca mask), Joonas would return to his trailer and stand in front of a full-length mirror, concentrating on the way Peter Mayhew would move as Chewbacca. When he was finally called to set, Joonas felt like the character of Chewbacca was firmly set in his mind.
According to reports from the set, many of the scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens with Chewbacca were shot twice. The first with Peter Mayhew Chewbacca, and the second with Joonas Suotamo Chewbacca. As to which Chewbacca is which in the final film, neither Mayhew or Suotamo are giving anything away.
As to Star Wars: Episode VIII, which Chewbacca will clearly play a role in, it sounds as if Suotamo will be around again. For now, being Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca understudy is a wonderful thing. And, who knows, if Mayhew ever wants or needs to retire the role, it’s good to know that we’ll still have an actor around who has Mayhew’s stamp of approval and who knows Chewbacca inside and out.
[Photo via Lucasfilm/Disney]