Our March/April issue includes a feature on former Nittany Lion basketball center Joonas Suotamo ’08, who had quite a large role in bringing an iconic character to the screen in the blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you saw the movie — and by now, who hasn’t — you’re probably thinking, “Huh?!?! I don’t remember a 7-foot blonde Finnish guy in that?” That is, unless you recognize his friendly blue eyes.
Suotamo assumed the role of Chewbacca, the trusty co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon. Cast to help lessen the physical burden on 73-year-old Peter Mayhew, Suotamo didn’t miss a beat in making his Wookiee a virtual carbon copy of the original, despite being about four inches shorter. (And neither is saying which scenes feature either actor.)
So what’s the key to playing Chewbacca? Said Suotamo when we caught up with him recently via Skype from his native Finland, “You have to realize the stubbornness of that hairy carpet. He doesn’t take kindly to advice when he’s flying in his Millennium Falcon. It was just diving into the role and trying to behave as he would in whatever the story demanded.”
And the growl? On screen it’s a sound effect added in later by film editors. But Suotamo does do his own interpretation of a Wookiee growl, and he did it for us in this clip from the interview:
For more on Suotamo’s story, check out our March/April issue. You can read more tidbits from the interview below.
Penn Stater: When you found out you were cast as Chewbacca, what was your reaction and how did you prepare for the role?
“Initially I didn’t want to lock my expectations onto anything so I kind of went in with a blank slate and when I learned I got cast to play Chewbacca for certain scenes I was really excited. I immediately started watching the original trilogy on DVDs and watching, mimicking how Chewbacca moves and how, essentially, what’s the essence of Chewie’s character? It was a long process in front of the mirror, you know, mimicking his mannerisms. It ended up working out I think because it’s there on the big screen now.”
PS: What was it like when you put on that suit for the first time and you saw Chewbacca in the mirror?
“That was an amazing moment, because you look at the hair all over the suit, and then you can see the eyes coming out—which is the only thing that you see from the actor. That was like your childhood just displayed in front of you. Very iconic. A very surreal experience.”
PS: What was it like working with veteran actor Harrison Ford?
“It was something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life, because he was the actor from my childhood, watching the Indiana Jones films and, obviously, Star Wars films. Those kind of big, larger-than-life movies are what were special to me and as big of an actor as he is he was also a great guy — very easy to work with and he answered your questions when you had something about the scene or we had to tackle some little nuance or something here and there. Just as the whole project — he was so easy and so good to work with.”
PS: Did you ever ask him about Indiana Jones or anything like that?
“I think we talked about some of that stuff — nothing too specific because it’s a long time ago. I just told him the stories of how my dad showed me the Indiana Jones films and how I was really happy to introduce my dad to Harrison Ford at one point, at the end of filming. I was really happy about that. He’s just such a cool guy.”
PS: How about Peter Mayhew. What was it like working with him and what advice did he give you about playing Chewie?
“Peter was the one who really helped me with the mannerisms. He told me that Chewie always has his chin tucked just a little bit. We don’t know if that’s because he doesn’t like to stumble on anything that’s on the floor. He’s always looking kind of downward. … I expected a lot before I met him. I was a little bit nervous because I didn’t want there to be any kind feeling of, you know, that I’m stepping on someone’s turf or something like that. There was none of that. We got along so fantastically and it was just a great collaboration, working with Peter from discussing the scenes to just hanging out outside of the set. It was beautiful to meet with him and his family.”
PS: And so you’re sort of famous now. You’ve done rounds of interviews, a few websites have noticed your good looks and they’ve said they hope to see more of you without the Wookiee suit. Are you ready for this?
“I’m ready, yeah. Bring it on. I’m looking forward to the opportunities that might come outside of Star Wars and I’m already getting ready for those if they come and also treasuring this unique experience of being part of this awesome saga. Yeah, absolutely.”
— B.J. Reyes, associate editor