Anyone who has seen Peter Mayhew on the red carpet at various Star Wars: The Force Awakens events may have been wondering how he accomplished some of the bigger stunts in the movie. The actor, who has starred as Chewbacca in 5 of the 7 Star Wars live-action movies, has had knee problems for the past several years, and always appears in person with his signature lightsaber cane. Many have speculated that another actor did most of the heavy lifting we see in the movie. Today, we learn from Business Insider that Joonas Suotamo, a 29-year-old basketball player from Finland, suited up to star alongside Harrison Ford in all of the movie's action scenes. And once you've seen his face, there's no doubt there is something very 'Chewie' about him.
It was known from the start that a new actor would have to come in and take over for Peter Mayhew. And unlike replacing Han Solo, this would be a slightly easier task. But the filmmakers decided to follow the same path they did with their two unmasked leads Daisy Ridley and John Boyega. They went after a mostly unknown to assume the role. At 7-foot-2, Peter Mayhew is now 71-years-old. Despite his age, everyone involved with the production knew they needed him involved in some capacity. But given his waning health, Disney and LucasFilm also knew they needed fresh blood, because like C-3PO and R2-D2, Chewbacca is a timeless character who will always be with the franchise. And they needed someone much younger to carry out the film's more physical scenes.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens casting directors set out to find a blue-eyed 7-foot-2 actor who matched Peter Mayhew's stature, which was no easy task. They eventually landed on Joonas Suotamo, who attended Penn State from 2005 to 2008, where he played basketball. He continued the sport for his hometown club team in Espoo, located just outside Helsinki. The athlete graduated from Penn State with a film degree. He always wanted to be an actor, but his large size was a detriment to his burgeoning craft. About taking on this new profession, he had this to say to Business Inisder.
"I loved doing theater in high school. But 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."
Joonas Suotamo doesn't quite match Peter Mayhew's height at 6-foot-11. It was in 2013 that he got word from his Finnish basketball coach that a movie production was looking for a blue-eyed 7 foot tall actor. He reveals that he was told to send in an audition tape doing a caveman impression. He had his girlfriend film the performance. At the time, he had no idea that the movie he was trying out for was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But that soon changed. He explains.
"When I got the first few documents to sign, I could decipher it was 'Star Wars."
Joonas Suotamo was a lifelong Star Wars fan, and he always wanted to be Luke Skywalker. His dad used to show him the originals when he was a kid. With the storyline constantly evolving throughout production, the basketball player-turned-actor thought he was in the running to play a new character. It wasn't until he visit production headquarters in that he discovered what was going on.
"I took three trips there [during the audition], and on the first time I got more details and realized what my role would be."
Once he knew he was playing Han Solo's first mate, he went back and studied Peter Mayhew's performance, perfecting the role. He studied Chewbacca's moves the same way he studied his fellow athletes on the court. He explains.
"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."
In April of 2014, Joonas Suotamo finally met with director J.J. Abrams in London. It wasn't until then that he was confirmed for the part. The actor worked in costume for five months. He was on set alongside Peter Mayhew, and the two talked for hours about all the intricacies that went into playing such an iconic character as Chewbacca. Before being called to set each day, Joonas Suotamo would study his Chewbacca movements in a mirror. Most Chewbacca scenes were shot twice, once with Peter Mayhew in his suit, and then again with Joonas Suotamo. Though, the new Star Wars alum won't divulge just how much screen time he gets in the final cut of the movie.
"I will never get into it. That's for people to guess and figure out."
"He had this love and respect and connection for this character of Chewie all his life. The fact that he got to play Chewie in so many scenes was a powerful thing for him, but Peter was often there while Joonas was doing this, almost as a consultant."
Joonas Suotamo of course filmed scenes on the set of the Millennium Falcon. And was there the day Harrison Ford broke his leg. He was also present during the (SPOILER ALERT) death of Han Solo. About the experience, he had this to say.
"I couldn't believe I was standing next to the chess table. 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."
He goes onto discuss the death of Han Solo.
"It was a tense feeling on set. Everything was much more quiet than usual. Between takes, no one would talk much. Watching Harrison and Adam Driver do the scene was emotional."
About the acciden that broke Harrison Ford, he has this to share.
"That was a horrible day. I immediately tried to lift it, but it wouldn't even move. It was stopped by an emergency button, but none of us knew that. We were all freaking out. But [Ford] was great, he wanted everyone to not worry about him."
Joonas Suotamo first saw the movie at the London premiere. He has since seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens four more times. Usually with his friends or family. And because he wears a mask, he can enjoy his anonymity while out amongst the public, who have no idea they are sitting next to the new Chewbacca. The actor won't come right out and say he's confirmed for Star Wars: Episode VIII. Nor will he admit that he is completly replacing Peter Mayhew. But he hints that things are going to stay the same. And that he's not going back to his day job anytime soon. Here's a photo of Joonas Suotamo and Peter Mayhew on set.