Chewbacca is as much as part of Star Wars as any other character and The Force Awakens wouldn’t have been complete without our favourite walking carpet back aboard the Millennium Falcon. Chewie has been played solely by Peter Mayhew since the series began in 1977 but at 71, and in somewhat poor health, the producers of Episode VII decided to look for someone more athletic to help deliver the role. Make no mistake, this was no re-casting, rather an extremely sensitive addition that allowed Chewie to continue to be in action scenes, and fight alongside his lifelong buddy Han Solo (Harrison Ford).
Let us now introduce Joonas Suotamo, a Finnish national with a film degree from Penn State who played basketball for a European club team. Because of his 6’11” height he had thought a career in front of the camera would elude him, saying:
“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”.
Star Wars producers had put out an anonymous call for a 7-foot-tall blue-eyed man, a search Joonas heard about from his basketball coach. A video audition led to meetings and the gradual realization of the production and iconic role he was up for.
Of course they could have strapped any tall stuntman into the Wookie suit for the more physical parts of the shoot, but that would have been lazy. Mayhew reprised the role for the more restrained parts and was on hand, and on set, for most of the shoot, guiding Suotamo in the intricacies of the character he has played for over 35 years. In fact most Chewbacca scenes were shot twice, once with Mayhew and then once more with Suotamo which shows just how keen J.J. Abrams and the producers were that Chewie was, well, Chewie. And neither actor will spill the beans on who exactly is playing Chewbacca in any particular scene. Said Suotamo:
“I will never get into it. That’s for people to guess and figure out.”
It’s comforting the level of attention Abrams and everyone else gave The Force Awakens. Bear in mind Harrison Ford re-shot almost all of his footage after his terrible accident on board the ‘Falcon set, so with double Chewie takes, that’s a lot of extra filming. As Wookies have a 400 year lifespan it’s safe to assume we’ll be seeing more of Chewbacca, and Suotamo plans on being back. “I would assume things will stay the same”, he commented.
For some Chewie was one of the highlights of The Force Awakens and it’s good to know he’ll not only be back in the action for the foreseeable future, but when Mayhew does decide to hang up the fur permanently, Chewie will go on.