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Joonas Suotamo, Solo: A Star Wars Story's Chewbacca, Discusses Finnish Army, Wookiee Bootcamp

This guy is Chewbacca.
This guy is Chewbacca. Wikimedia Commons
In the newly released Solo: A Star Wars Story, audiences see how the friendship between Han Solo and his best friend for life, Chewbacca, is formed. Also for the first time, Star Wars fans will see a more mobile Chewbacca, a version of the famous Wookiee that runs into battle, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with mobs of helplessly less-capable enemies.

The movie Solo plays out like a heist film set in space — Ocean's 11 meets, well, Star Wars, with plans that can’t go wrong going wrong, criminals with hearts of gold and shifting alliances with shifty allies. The iconic character of Han Solo relies heavily on his right-hand Wookiee, so a movie about Solo would equally rely on his growling partner in crime.

Joonas Suotamo, the 31-year-old Finnish former basketball player turned actor, has stepped into the large, hairy shoes of Chewbacca, taking over the character originally established by actor Peter Mayhew. Originally going in to assist with scenes for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Suotamo is the lone actor portraying the fan favorite character. Suotamo was in town promoting the movie, so we sat down with him; he shared his experiences playing Chewbacca and gave us a glimpse on what to expect from the new movie.

How did you come to work on Star Wars?
I was called by the Finnish Basketball Association. They received a request for a 7-footer with blue eyes. The production was desperate at that point to find someone, and when they were looking, they couldn’t find anyone. And I was introduced to them, I sent my photos and video, and it took five months to finally get the role. After some [time], I figured it was Star Wars and Chewbacca [laughs].

So at the time they hadn’t told you what part they were looking for?
I had no idea until I figured it out. And they still wanted me to play a cavemen even though I knew what it was, they still wanted me to present — because they didn’t know I knew — so they wanted me to play a caveman, which I did.

So when they were asking for the tape, the instructions were “growl like a caveman”?
Yeah. I was just like (growls like caveman), just like that (laughs). Apparently that gave them all they needed because I can do a pretty impressive caveman.

Do they add the Chewbacca growls in postproduction, or are those your growls in the movie?
It’s in post. I’m doing the growl as a reference for them. (Does Chewbacca noises.) I think Ron Howard wanted to leave some in, but they found a suitable bear sound just in time for the movie’s release.

How long were you filming?
We were there for many, many months. I can’t remember how many months it was exactly. Solo, this one, such a joy to work on because I got to work with both Han Solos, now, both Harrison Ford and Alden [Ehrenreich], and he just nailed the part. He really made it his own and really kicked some ass.

"I think right now it’s pretty tough to beat Solo: A Star Wars Story for me." – Joonas Suotamo

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You do some ass-kicking of your own in the movie. During the fight scenes, is that all you?
That’s me. That’s all me. I wanted to bring a physical Chewbacca in there and to show those stories that we’ve heard so much about, about Wookiee strength, and make that a reality in a convincing way.

How much planning goes into your combat scenes?
The fights are very well choreographed. There are (laughs) pulleys to throw the stuntmen around. It’s really exciting to do those things because you get to plan a lot with the stunt guys and try to test it out. And then you go there on the day and it just looks fantastic.

Is it easy to move around in the suit during those scenes?
Yeah, no restrictive movement. The only thing is the performance of Chewbacca has to be cumbersome and heavy and strong like a creature, but the suit itself doesn’t impede movement.

How long does it take to get into the suit?
An hour to an hour and a half.

That’s not as bad as I thought it would be.
Yeah, no. It’s a bodysuit ... underneath, and then you slip into the costume, and then you put the shoes on, which are boots covered in fur, then you put the gloves on, and then you put the head on and all the accessories that come with Chewbacca. I have no prosthetics. They sometimes glue some hair in my eyes to mask the line between my skin and the mask.

You served in the Finnish army, is that right?
Yes, the requirement is to serve six months to one year.

What did you do during your service?
I was military police. It was a lot of fun (laughs).

So you were pretty much pretrained to be Chewbacca.
Exactly (laughs). The weeks spent in a frozen forest somewhere out there in the Finnish wilderness was exciting, yeah. The winter’s are really cold, so yeah, I was spending as much time in the tent as I could.

Did you get a chance to talk to the original Chewbacca?
Yes, we had a Wookiee bootcamp. And [Peter Mayhew] told me how he did it, and I took that and ran with it. It was really helpful to hear from the original.

How long did Wookiee bootcamp last?
It was five days. I met with Peter, and then I did some work with a yoga instructor. It was really helpful, doing that kind of body awareness type of training. Then I met with Peter again just to — they wanted to see a Chewbacca that pays respect to the original, and I’m happy to oblige because as a Star Wars fan, that’s all I want, too.

Do you have a favorite Star Wars movie?
I think right now it’s pretty tough to beat Solo: A Star Wars Story for me. It’s just a fun thrill to watch this movie. If Indiana Jones and Star Wars had a baby, it would be Solo: a Star Wars Story. It’s such a fun, fun film.
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