It took less than a year for Joonas Suotamo to become a beloved staple within Star Wars fandom. The 31-year-old entertainer from Espoo, Finland has been playing the mighty Chewbacca for nearly half a decade now, taking the reins of the iconic Wookiee from the gentle and gigantic hands of Peter Mayhew, who originally helped make Chewie a household name. From his iconic roar (which Suotamo has perfected, translating words and emotions into roars with an almost otherworldly ease) to the look in his bright, blue eyes when he describes the work, it’s clear that Suotamo takes the role seriously. The level of respect that he has for the character’s originator and for Chewbacca’s own humanity goes well beyond the concept of making a fun space fantasy romp like Solo, which releases this week.
“My goal is to play the character while honoring the original performance of [Mayhew], and that that is the only way I’m ever gonna play this character,” Suotamo told Den of Geek at the press day for Solo: A Star Wars Story. “He gave Chewbacca the uniqueness and heart that we know him for, and for that I am forever thankful for him. If it wasn’t for Peter, probably this character would not be as loved; he would just be a man in a suit. But that didn’t happen so thank you very much, Sir Peter.”
But with time and creativity, Suotamo has mastered the character’s every move, adding layers to an already beloved and familiar face, particularly in The Last Jedi and Solo. It’s almost jarring to watch one film after the other, taking in the heartbreak in Chewbacca’s eyes when Luke Skywalker asks, “Where’s Han?” and then rewinding to the very day that the iconic duo first met.
For Suotamo, who has played the character opposite the original Han Solo, Harrison Ford, and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, following that narrative has been an interesting experience. “In this movie, Chewbacca doesn’t really know Han; he’s just getting to know him,” said Suotamo. “So it was interesting to play him in a way that sort of places Chewbacca in this space where he has to decide what he’s going to do with his life…whether this reckless scoundrel is the partner for him.”
Apparently, that recklessness and their almost-instant friendship is what makes Chewbacca truly stay with Han, beyond reasons such as a Wookee life debt. “Everything’s off the table in this film,” Suotamo mused. “It’s an adventure that could lead to something bigger for Chewbacca, and give him the ability to do something better for his people.”
When it comes to stories he’d like to play out in the future, Suotamo is hoping for a homecoming. “It would be cool to see Chewbacca on his home planet, living with the other Wookiees,” he said. “To see him returning to his home planet and doing some good for his people on the ground.”
As part of Star Wars’ new generation of actors, Suotamo’s performance of Chewbacca is a wholly unique experience in many ways that differ from Mayhew’s. Physical constraints — save for the heat of wearing a giant fur-covered suit for nearly 10 hours or more — now seem like a thing of the past.
“I can see fine in the suit, it’s just that I’m working with Chewbacca’s spectrum of movement, and I’m trying to do things as he would. So it’s kind of looking down and working in something of a cumbersome manner, which makes it seem like I’m suffering in the suit. But I’m really not, I’m just really performing the character. That’s the thing that gives him that creature-like quality that people instantly recognize and love. At the end of the day, it’s not about being a man in a suit, but rather inhabiting the spirit of a creature who is, well, flying spaceships.”
On top of that, being the co-pilot of the fastest ship in the galaxy has a few new perks. “We had real pilots coming in to teach us how to operate the cockpit realistically,” Suotamo recalled. “It was really interesting because I think it gave this movie more weight, and there’s more tangible quality to the flying.”
With Solo, the rush of hyperspace and the race against time translated into real-life special effects that even the actors weren’t given a “heads up” about. Solo co-writer Jon Kasdan mentioned the new addition of a screen around the Falcon’s cockpit, which seemed almost like a prop screen, glittered with stars and the pitch black of outer space. But, when the actors actually pushed those levers forward and “went into hyperspace,” the effect showed up vividly on the screen around their set, with almost no warning the first time around. This was an apparently delightful surprise for actors like Donald Glover, who plays the smooth and savvy Lando Calrissian, so we asked Suotamo about his own experience in the co-pilot’s chair and how working with the Falcon now differs from what the original cast of Star Wars worked with.
“We had a curved projection of the environment we were in. So we were able to see hyperspace, and it was just fantastic. I don’t think it’s ever been done before, except for in Rogue One — they tested a similar projection method and it looked great,” he said. “We felt like we were really flying in various circumstances and situations that might be unconventional — as this crew with troublemakers like Han might.”
As for operating the cockpit itself, Suotamo has a few favorite buttons and levers on the main console. “I love the hyperspace handles — which, one of them I broke when J.J. [Abrams] asked me to shoot a video for his friend’s kid’s bar mitzvah… the camera turned to me, and I pulled one of the levers right out and stared at it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
Suotamo, a former basketball player, has gone through other, major life changes over the past few years: he’s also become a father. For any parents (or aunts, uncles, guardians, and others) who love Star Wars, introducing the franchise to little ones can almost be stressful; you want them to like the things that mean the most to you without overloading them. Suotamo seems to be taking it in stride, introducing his son to the galaxy far, far away, one step at a time.
“Oh, I’ve already started the introduction [to Star Wars] by giving him toys to hold and shake,” the actor explained. “He loves this little mini Porg, which is about the size of a coffee mug, and he loves that because he can hold onto it and shake it. I’m planning to, when he’s older, to show him the movies, and I think it’s going to be great when he sees them for the first time. I think he’ll know before he sees the movies that Daddy is Chewbacca, though.”
Suotamo’s Chewbacca continues the lovable legacy of the diplomatic and heroic Wookiee in Solo: A Star Wars Story, which is out on May 25.