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 as they did with their unmasked leads Daisy Ridley (Silent Witness) and John Boyega (Attack The Block). They chose a mostly unknown to assume the role. At 7 ft 2, Peter Mayhew is now 71-years-old. But despite his age, everyone involved with the production knew they needed him involved in some capacity. But given his waning health, Walt Disney Pictures and LucasFilm also knew they needed fresh blood because, like C-3PO and R2-2D, Chewbacca is a timeless character who will always be with the franchise. They clearly 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 ft 2 actor who matched Peter Mayhew's stature, which was no easy task. They eventually landed on former basketball player Joonas Suotamo. He had always wanted to be an actor, but found his height to be a detriment.
"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."
Although Suotamo doesn't quite match Peter Mayhew's height at 6 ft 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 but had no idea that the movie he was auditioning for was Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
"When I got the first few documents to sign, I could decipher it was 'Star Wars."
A lifelong Star Wars fan, Suotamo had always wanted to be Luke Skywalker after his father had shown 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 his visit to 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.
"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 2014 Suotamo finally met with director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness) in London where he was finally confirmed for the part. The actor worked in costume for five months alongside Peter Mayhew, with whom he discusses all the intricacies involved in playing such an iconic character as Chewbacca. Before being called to set each day, 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 Suotamo. Though producers won't divulge exactly 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."
J.J. Abrams was clearly happy with the actor's performance though.
"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."
Suotamo won't confirm if he is set for Star Wars: Episode VIII, nor will he admit that he is completely replacing Peter Mayhew, but he does hint that things are going to stay the same and that he has no intention of going back to his day job anytime soon. You can read more of the spoiler filled interview here.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is out now.