When 31-year-old Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo first stepped into the role of Star Wars’ towering, hairy Wookiee character Chewbacca for 2015’s The Force Awakens, he repeatedly dodged press questions about which scenes he appeared in. Peter Mayhew, who originated the role in 1977’s A New Hope, was also playing Chewbacca in some scenes, but he was having mobility issues and using a cane. Suotamo was eager to tell the story of how he ended up on Star Wars as his first film acting gig. He was a “borderline jobless” basketball player who was living with his mother until he answered a worldwide casting call for a 7-foot actor with blue eyes. But out of respect for Mayhew, he wanted to keep quiet on when exactly he stepped into the role.
As of The Last Jedi, Suotamo became the new full-time Chewbacca, and in Solo: A Star Wars Story, he plays the Wookiee again at a much earlier time in his life when he first met longtime partner Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and they started adventuring together. For Suotamo, playing Chewbacca isn’t just about turning up on set in costume. He closely studied and shadowed Mayhew on film and on the set, and he eagerly talks about his complicated choices in bringing across the character through physical movement and vocal inflections. I sat down with Suotamo in Chicago to talk about the secrets of how Chewbacca’s mask works, the script that lays out what Chewie is saying in English, and what most people assume about his costume.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I’ve read that Irvin Kershner, director of The Empire Strikes Back, only wanted to interact with Peter Mayhew when he was fully in costume, that he wanted to see him as a Wookiee, not an actor. Have you encountered anything like that when playing the character?
Oh my God, I’m so glad I was born in ’86! No! As I’ve told everyone, it’s a very hot piece of costume. It’s better the less time I spend in that, the more fresh I stay. So it’s never been an issue, and I hope it never will be.
Is any part of the mask animatronic? Do you control everything about it?
It’s all just mechanical. The lower jaw is pushed down by my actual jaw. When the mouth opens, it pulls the upper lip down, with a coil, into a snarl. It’s all mechanical. It’s actually kind of heavy, and my jaw is always sore after a day’s work if I have to do a lot of [vocalizing]. So every mouth opening is heavy work. The head is held together by Velcro and all kinds of things, and you’re pushing all of that down whenever [Chewbacca groan noise].
Is it one of those pieces where the costume team is constantly having to futz with it?
Yeah, sometimes, but most of the time, it works. [Special make-up effects creative supervisor] Neal Scanlan’s creature team is so good at what they do, so good at fixing every kind of problem. It’s evolved, and right now, it’s just perfect. It’s as nice as it can be to wear that suit. It hasn’t changed externally, but on The Force Awakens, there was metal inside the costume. That was redesigned, and now it’s just foam and very nice to wear. It still gets hot, and it gets uncomfortable after a 10-hour workday slips into 12, or something like that.
Peter Mayhew reportedly gave you a lot of advice about how to play Chewbacca, and one thing he said was “be less skinny.” Did he mean that literally, like “gain weight,” or was he talking about how you carried yourself?
[Laughs] I think it was just a joke. He’s got this kind of jokey way about him, and I think he was just saying that to — or I was just saying that. He didn’t really say that. He might have commented on that when we met the first time, but he was all very good about all that.
What did he tell you that was useful?
He told me to have my chest real high, how to turn my head at these angles — stuff I’d already researched by watching his performance. But it was just good to meet him and refine my knowledge about him and why he did things a certain way. It was very good for my performance to know there was this original way, and think about how much of it I should incorporate into my performance. Because we’re different people physically. We’re very differently built, so I needed to adjust my performance to my physicality and work from there.
You’ve worked with several different directors while playing the same character. How do their approaches to Chewbacca differ?
Yeah, everyone’s always had really strong ideas about the character. Mostly, it’s loving. They care about him so much. I think at this point, I’m starting to know so much of the character that it’s almost more that they’re coming in asking me how to do this or that. Then I show them, and either they love it or they ask for something to be changed. I drive a lot of the performance of Chewbacca on the set. First, they just want to see how I do it, and it works great that way because the intuition is usually right.
Here, I’m just talking about individual scenes. Because Rian Johnson had a very specific plan in mind for The Last Jedi, and he’d storyboarded a lot of it. Whereas J.J. Abrams had a very free-flowing, energetic approach. Things could change any minute. It was a much more improvisational approach to Chewbacca, rather than rather preplanned. With Rian, I had to do the storyboard, which was interesting. It led me to some things where I had to say, “Would he do this?” or I had to really think where I should go.
And in Solo, Ron Howard, because he comes from an acting background, he really was perfectly in tune with how Chewie should be presented in a shot, in a take. And he was wonderful to work with. They all were, they were just very different in how they approached the job of directing.
Can you speak to Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s take? They supposedly had a pretty improvisational way of working, too. Did they also want you to play with the character?
I mean, they were great. There was a different tone, of course, but it’s best not to go there, not to talk about it too much because we eventually went somewhere different. I wish them all the best and hope to work with them again someday.
In Solo, you’re playing Chewbacca at a different age than in previous movies. Did you think about how his body language would change over the course of most of a human lifespan?
For him, it’s such a small span of time, relatively, to his age. But the script called for a different kind of Chewbacca, whether that’s from age or from his different circumstances. Chewbacca is in a very different place in Solo than when he was smuggling in the original Star Wars trilogy with Han Solo. So I wanted to show a different, more active Chewbacca because he’s a bit younger. I wanted to explore those mentions in the original trilogy, where they talk about “the mighty Chewbacca.” What would that look like? I was very interested in bringing those solid foundations of cool images, and proof that Chewbacca is a really stout warrior, and he can do a lot of stuff that we haven’t seen him do.
What was the stunt training like for the film?
It was a couple of months before filming. We convened with Alden and the stunt team and started rehearsing, and did every imaginable training exercise to prepare ourselves for the shoot. It was a lot of extra work, but I think it made the film better because we were able to execute things that would have been more difficult to do if we didn’t train every day for two months.
How much of it was about specific fight sequences or stunts, and how much was just about building strength and getting used to movement in the costume?
I’m pretty agile in the suit! It’s just that I don’t want to move recklessly on set or move needlessly because I don’t want to tear the suit or tear the hairs. So I’m very careful. But the suit doesn’t impede my movement too much at all. People have this conception that the Chewbacca suit is heavy, but that comes from the heavy, cumbersome way I move. I do that on purpose to imply weight and strength. That’s part of the performance. The Chewbacca suit makes it seem like you’re stronger because it hides you. There could be anything underneath it. And then when you move a certain way, you create the feeling of strength in a very cool way.
In a really active scene, how do you balance that hulking movement with moving quickly enough to make combat exciting?
Right. Yeah, that’s the thing. I would just imagine if you’re very strong, and you want to show that, you start slow but end fast. [Mimes slowly pulling back and putting his weight into a lunge that abruptly speeds up.] Like, rarrrrwngh! That’s the kind of thing I did in fights, to show that Chewbacca is very strong. That all worked beautifully. It’s so terrifying when he comes out the first time. It’s all part of the performance. And I think it fits into that character.
There’s one scene in deep mud, and it seems like even if the costume is relatively light, once it’s soaking wet and matted with dirt, it’d be a lot harder to move around. What was shooting that scene like?
Yeah. It actually caused me to have this neck problem, and I was out for two days. I’d irritated I don’t know what, some of the muscles in the back of my neck. When your head is weighed down with wet hair and a mask that consists of wet hair, it brings a lot of stress to the muscles in your neck. I have to move in these positions. [Mimes hunched back and heavy skulking.] We filmed those scenes many, many times, and I feel that in my back. It causes a lot of tension in the muscles.
Vin Diesel gets scripts for Guardians of the Galaxy that have Groot’s lines in English, so he at least knows what he’s saying. Is there a Star Wars equivalent? Have different directors spent more or less time with you on “here’s what Chewbacca is saying in this scene”?
For Solo, at least, Lawrence and Jon Kasdan wrote lines for Chewie because it was important for him to say something actual to the other actors — mostly to Han. And sometimes there comes a time when we’d realize in the middle of shooting that a Chewbacca line should come here, and we’d just improvise something, the equivalent of “Watch out!” or something immediate like that. But there were a lot of lines scripted for me in this film.
I’ve heard you doing the Chewbacca vocalizations, but Ben Burtt famously created what the character’s vocabulary sounds like. Are we hearing any of your voice in the final versions?
I make the sounds on-screen, and they put that sound in to make the initial scene work. And then Skywalker Sound uses that as a reference to find the bear sounds they use for Chewbacca. I’ve heard that for this one, they had trouble finding good enough bear sounds because there’s so much intonation when I’m doing it on the set, and they want to match that. But, of course, any noise I’m making is muffled and through the mask, so it’s not as good. I do think it helps them a lot that I do the sound on set.
In the interview where you talked about Peter Mayhew’s instructions to you, you said he discussed where he put his attention in a scene, what was important for his focus. What’s important to Chewbacca?
I try to approach playing Chewie as if he’s a creature, an animal. An animal is not going to be looking like this. [Mimes intent interest, craning his head forward.] He’s sort of just like this. [Mimes a mildly baffled head-cock.] His gaze wanders, I think. I love watching Chewie on-screen. Everyone else is looking at something and being worried, and Chewbacca is in his own world, but he’s still there, still present. And there’s something there that I think is essential to him. It’s something I noticed myself in Peter’s performance. It’s a great performance and a great thing to have as a reference.
What’s your most memorable moment as Chewbacca so far?
There are so many in this film. So many. But I mostly just think of a part in this film where I get to run. Chewbacca runs to get Lando, and that was fun to film because I got to run free, just run, like I had to get from point A to point B as fast as I could. I couldn’t think about anything, like how to run. I just wanted to make it as forceful of a run as possible. And it was shot outside, so it was nice and breezy. Sadly, we didn’t have enough runway for me to get more steps in. Ron said the set was too small for a good run. But it was still awesome to shoot that scene.