In the midst of finding lesser-known actors to play the new leads of the “Star Wars” saga, like Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, the casting department of “The Force Awakens” also had to try to find a double for one of its most legendary roles: Chewbacca.
Actor Peter Mayhew, the 71-year-old, 7’2″ London-born actor who has been the man behind the Wookiee since “Episode IV: A New Hope” opened in 1977, reprises the character once more in “Awakens.” But given Mayhew’s age and abilities (he’s often seen walking with a cane), the filmmakers needed someone younger to assist in the film’s physical scenes.
So the casting directors had their orders: span the globe to track down seven-footers with blue eyes (to match those of Mayhew).
Joonas Suotamo, 29, is a longtime basketball player from Finland. He played when he went to college at Penn State from 2005-2008 and more recently on his hometown club team in Espoo, located just outside Helsinki. But what many didn’t know was that Suotamo has an interest in acting. Having graduated from Penn State with a film degree, he had always wanted to act, but his size sapped him of his confidence.
“I loved doing theatre in high school,” Suotamo told Business Insider. “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.”
At 6’11”, he was perfectly suited to play power forward and center on the basketball court, but after graduating from Penn State with no incentive to turn pro, Suotamo returned to Finland, playing on the side while starting a video production company and selling insurance to pay the bills.
“I actually sold the insurance over the phone, so my size wasn’t a factor when approaching people with my pitch,” he said with a laugh.
But then at the end of 2013, word got to the Finnish national basketball coach that a movie production was looking for a blue-eyed seven-footer and, though Suotamo is a tad shorter than that, the coach instantly thought of him.
“I was told to send in an audition tape of me doing a caveman impression,” said Suotamo, who went to his old high school after the students had left for the day and had his girlfriend film his performance.
At that point, Suotamo admits, he had no idea what movie he was auditioning for.
“When I got the first few documents to sign, I could decipher it was ‘Star Wars,'” Suotamo said. He found that the film title on the paperwork, “Foodles,” matched internet rumours of the alias the “Star Wars” production was operating under.
Suotamo’s father used to show him the original “Star Wars” trilogy when he was a kid, and Suotamo says he always wanted to be Luke Skywalker. Aware of the franchise’s ever-evolving storyline, as the audition process continued, Suotamo thought he was in the running to play a new character. Then he took his first trip to the production headquarters in London.
“I took three trips there [during the audition], and on the first time I got more details and realised what my role would be,” he said of playing Mayhew’s double as Chewbacca.
So Suotamo went back and watched the original trilogy constantly to study Chewbacca. Suotamo admits it was the perfect role for him, as he’s always been fascinated by the movements of others. “At basketball practice, I was the one who would always mimic the style of my teammates,” Suotamo said. “So playing Chewbacca is something I’ve always prepared myself for, unknowingly.”
In April of 2014, Suotamo got the call that he needed to fly to London to meet “Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams. He was told there that he got the role.
Suotamo was on set for five months, working alongside Mayhew, who would talk to his understudy for hours about the intricacies of Chewbacca.
Following his daily morning trip to get black makeup applied around his eyes so his skin wouldn’t show through the eye sockets of the Chewie mask, Suotamo would spend his time before being called to set standing next to a full-length mirror, imitating Mayhew’s movements. He wanted to keep the character fresh in his mind. Chewie’s scenes were often shot twice, once with Mayhew in the suit, and a second time with Suotamo.
But Suotamo refused to divulge to BI exactly how much screen time he has in the movie.
“I will never get into it,” he said. “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,” J.J. Abrams said of Suotamo to Yahoo. “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.”
As a fan of the saga, Suotamo will never forget filming the scenes on the Millennium Falcon set. “I couldn’t believe I was standing next to the chess table,” he said. “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.”
Then there was shooting the death of Han Solo, one of Chewbacca’s most dramatic scenes of the whole movie. “It was a tense feeling on set,” Suotamo remembers of the shooting. “Everything was much more quiet than usual. Between takes, no one would talk much. Watching Harrison [Ford] and Adam Driver do the scene was emotional.”
Then there was emotion of a different sort on the day that Ford’s left leg was broken by a hydraulic door on the Falcon. Suotamo says he was right behind Ford when the accident occurred. And like many others on set, he attempted to lift the hydraulic door off of him.
“That was a horrible day,” Suotamo said. “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.”
After seeing the film with the cast at the London premiere, Suotamo says he’s seen “Force Awakens” three or four more times — basically, whenever family and friends want to see it.
Suotamo enjoys the anonymity that comes with playing Chewbacca for now, though he has an agent and hopes to continue acting — including opportunities in which he’s not behind a mask.
When asked if he’s signed on to play Chewbacca in upcoming “Star Wars” movies or replace Mayhew when the actor retires from the role, Suotamo gives a cryptic reply: “I would assume things will stay the same.”
But one thing he’ll say for certain: “I’m not planning to go back to selling insurance.”
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