In the eyes of fans and studio heads alike, J.J. Abrams had some massive shoes to fill. Star Wars creator George Lucas himself found it difficult to please fans of his original blockbuster with the prequel trilogy. Now that Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is a bonafide megahit, dropping a cool billion and a half into Disney/Lucasfilm’s wallet and restoring order to the galaxy, some of the pressure is off.
However, Abrams wasn’t the only one who had big shoes to fill. Peter Mayhew, the actor behind everyone’s favorite gentle giant, Chewbacca, has played the lovable Wookiee in five out of the seven Star Wars films, going back to A New Hope in 1977. Now often seen walking with a cane, the aging actor needed a little help with the action sequences in Episode 7.
That’s where 29-year-old Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo found himself with some big, furry feet to fill. Interviewed in Business Insider, the 6’ 11” former insurance agent – who has a film degree from Penn State and a serious acting bug – was tipped to the role by his former national team basketball coach. After being filmed by his girlfriend acting like a cave dweller, Suotamo received several documents for a suspiciously titled film called 'Foodles.' He did a little web research and discovered the film he was likely auditioning was for Star Wars, although he still wasn’t clear on which role.
After several more auditions, director Abrams informed Suotamo he’d be playing the iconic Wookiee starting in April of 2014. The actor spent five months alongside Mayhew, with black makeup around his eyes, often shooting duplicate scenes to those shot previously with the lanky Brit. Suotamo found the experience of playing Chewbacca’s understudy amazing, but when asked how often he was on camera as Han Solo’s hetero lifemate, the actor played coy: "That’s for people to guess and figure out," he says. He does admit to having some preparation for the role, though:
"At basketball practice, I was the one who would always mimic the style of my teammates. So playing Chewbacca is something I've always prepared myself for, unknowingly."
As a lifelong fan of the Star Wars saga, the actor was particularly awestruck by his surroundings:
"I couldn't believe I was standing next to the chess table [on the Millennium Falcon]. I heard it was built exactly the same way, and even the smell of it was exactly the same from the original movies, I'm told."
Suotamo was even there when the unthinkable happened, helping hoist the Millennium Falcon’s hydraulic door off Harrison Ford’s leg. After the unpleasant real-life events, shooting Han Solo’s confrontation with Kylo Ren was even more challenging to the actor. "Everything was much more quiet than usual. Between takes, no one would talk much. Watching Harrison and Adam Driver do the scene was emotional."
The young Finnish actor can count himself fortunate for sure. Taking part in the latest chapter of a legendary story, working next to the actors and characters that brought it to life in the first place, is an incredible opportunity and experience. And as a footnote, Suotamo says he won’t be returning to the insurance business anytime soon. Still, when asked about his continued role in the Star Wars universe, or even taking over for the iconic Mayhew, he replies vaguely: "I would assume things will stay the same."
As long as Peter Mayhew gives Suotamo his blessing, we’ll look forward to seeing more of the towering Finn behind the furry mask in the future. Could you tell the difference between Mayhew's and Suotamo’s Chewbacca? Let us know below.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.
Source: Business Insider