While Peter Mayhew has been the beloved actor inside the furry suit since the Star Wars saga began, he shared those duties on The Force Awakens.
The reason is simple: At the age of 71, the British-born Mayhew has not been in the best of health in recent years and is often seen walking with a cane. So, according to Business Insider (beware spoilers just in case), the producers of Star Wars: The Force Awakens went out in search of someone who could stand in for Mayhew when necessary.
That person had to be around seven feet tall (Mayhew is 7'2"), and have blue eyes like Mayhew’s. The producers found their man in Joonas Suotamo, a 29-year-old basketball player from Finland. Suotano said an interview that while he always had an interest in acting, he never pursued it seriously because he was afraid his size would block him from getting many roles.
Playing basketball at home in Finland and selling insurance to help pay the bills, Suotamo was informed in late 2013 by his coach that a film production was looking for a seven-foot-tall man with blue eyes. While Suotamo is actually 6'11", he nevertheless submitted an audtion tape -- "I was told to send in an audition tape of me doing a caveman impression" -- without even knowing what movie he was trying out for.
He realized it was Star Wars when he got his first papers to sign, but even then thought he was up for a new role and not one of the series' most iconic characters. That changed when he went to the production offices in London:
"I took three trips there, and on the first time I got more details and realized what my role would be."
Suotamo says he then went back to watch the original trilogy and study Mayhew’s performances as Chewbacca, explaining:
"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."
Suotamo got one final call in April 2014, asking him to fly to London and meet with director J.J. Abrams, who told him that he had won the job. Suotamo worked on the set for five months alongside Mayhew, whom he says spoke for hours with Suotamo about the character.
While many of Chewie's scenes were shot twice, once with Mayhew and once with Suotamo, the latter won't reveal how much of the Wookiee that we see in the final film is him:
"I will never get into it. That's for people to guess and figure out."
Abrams said this about Suotamo:
"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."
As for whether Suotamo is signed for more Star Wars movies, he says: "I would assume things will stay the same."
Hopefully we'll see both Mayhew and Suotamo again as Chewbacca in Star Wars: Episode VIII. While it's inevitable that Peter Mayhew will one day no longer play the role at all, the way this has been handled seems like the start of a graceful and respectful transition. Do you agree?