A long time ago, in a galaxy that’s not so far away, Joonas Suotamo hoped to make it big as a basketball player.
While the 6′ 10” Pennsylvania State University alum only got to play as a pro in his native Finland, the baller-turned-actor found a new use for his height: taking over for the legendary Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca. Suotamo first got his Wookie on as a body double for Mayhew in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” before receiving the gig full-time for “The Last Jedi.”
The Finnish star is back as Chewbacca in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which opens in theaters this weekend. Soutamo isn’t the only one who’s subbing in for a “Star Wars” icon, as Alden Ehrenreich is now playing a younger Han Solo in place of Harrison Ford.
Ahead, we caught up with Suotamo about his experience filming “Solo,” if he thinks he can ball with LeBron James and if he’ll be back as the Wookie for Episode IX.
What’s the best part about playing Chewbacca?
The happiest moments and the reward for playing Chewbacca is when you’ve done all the research and prepared for these scenes, and you make those choices as an actor, and then you get to see on screen how Chewbacca is this character in this fantastic world that “Star Wars” deals in. You get to see that he’s living on screen, and that is the most amazing thing to see. It’s not a man in a suit. It’s a character called Chewbacca and I get to play him. That’s the biggest thing for me, really. The premieres and seeing people react to him is wonderful. “Solo” is such a fun film and you get to see a lot of Chewie in this one.
When we first see Chewbacca in “Solo,” he has more of a scary, monstrous edge to him that we haven’t seen in past films.
The point of preparing for this film was to be in very good physical shape. We did two months of stunt training. We wanted to be in very good position to show what kind of physical warrior Chewbacca is. It’s really facisnating to see what Larry and Jon Kasdan’s screenplay brings to the screen in terms of Chewie being a fully functioning character, a living, breathing Wookie. We were able to pull off this with great help from Ron [Howard]. He was amazing directing me in the suit. He somehow knew what to do and was able to give me a lot of great advice when we were filming.
Did the shake-up of directors and reshoots for “Solo” alter Chewbacca’s story arc at all?
We were always working from the great script that Larry and Jon had written. I wasn’t privy to any of the background discussions on anything. All I know is that one day we just had a new director and Ron came in. He was just absolutely great. With his experience, he could just very quickly decide if a shot and take were working and we were able to move on. It was such a pleasure working with him. It meant a lot of work for me because we were so efficient doing things that I had to sweat a lot in the suit.
Lawrence Kasdan, he had a very good plan. He knew from working with me in “Force Awakens,” he knew what I could do. They had written lines for me for this one, so every time I say something in the suit, it’s this meaningful thing for Alden or whoever to react to. It worked great. Even though Chewie’s language is moans, you can still read through his expressions what he’s saying.
Did you provide the growls, or was that ADR?
They eventually do the ADR, but in this one, my growls were apparently so good that some of the growls, they were having trouble finding growls from the bears. I heard they were contemplating just leaving some of them in there. Eventually they found the bear sounds.
How does the start of Han and Chewbacca’s relationship in “Solo” compare to the end of their friendship in “Force Awakens”?
It’s very interesting, the beginning of any relationship, but especially Han and Chewie’s. All I can say is that it’s not an easy one. It took me completely by surprise how they do end up meeting for the first time. It’s very interesting to see on screen. They did a fantastic job at introducing all these characters and making it really feel like a spontaneous adventure story, where you don’t know what’s going to happen even though, in the back of your mind, you can kind of get the idea. Things can go either way in this film, and that’s what I love about the feel of this movie.
Alden just did such a fantastic job. From day one, he was really prepared. He had studied a lot of “Star Wars” and knew a lot of terminology for the character and what it meant. He had been a fan as well all his life. I was really happy to be working with him because, unlike Harrison, I could feel a friendly connection there in the sense that we’re both young guys who grew up with “Star Wars” and get to play these characters. He just really made it his own. I love that he’s now getting the recognition that he most surely deserves.
Between filming, red carpets and comic con appearances, you’ve been able to meet a ton of awesome people thanks to your role as Chewbacca, including a few “Lord of the Rings” stars for that hilarious photo that went viral.
Lately, I’ve been having so much fun. When I saw Elijah [Wood], Sean [Astin] and Billy [Boyd] this weekend, I had to get a photo. It was a funny thing that actually Sean mentioned, that we should probably crop the photo like so. It ended up being more funny than if my face was on it. I don’t know what it says about my face, but I love it. Now Elijah and Sean both follow me on Twitter, so not too bad I guess.
Finally met my heroes — The Hobbits from Lord of The Rings! pic.twitter.com/SHWxH3A0BQ
— Joonas Suotamo (@JoonasSuotamo) May 20, 2018
Considering you were big into basketball before joining the world of “Star Wars,” what’s your prediction for the Celtics-Cavaliers series?
I’m really torn. I would love to see what the king can do, but I think the Celtics are really tough this year. I went to see them one time play the Raptors. They’re a really solid team with a great coach. The Cavs are the underdogs, so I guess I want to see the Cavs come back in the series.
Do you think Chewbacca—or rather you as Chewbacca—could take LeBron James in a one-on-one game?
I think as soon as I put that hair suit on, I mean, I get a couple extra inches in my vertical. Surely there would be no one to stop Chewbacca in a basketball game.
Going back to “Star Wars,” will you return for Episode IX?
All I will say is that J.J. [Abrams] is directing Episode IX and I would love to be involved. That’s all I’m going to say.
What about a Chewbacca solo movie? Who would you want to team up with if that ever happened?
That would be exciting, wouldn’t it? I think it would be very cool to team up with a group of stranded Jedi. That would be a very cool thing to happen.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” flies into theaters May 25.