Solo: A Star Wars Story Chewbacca hero
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Solo's Chewbacca was modeled on cute puppies, angry gorillas, and friendship

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May 23, 2018, 12:00 PM EDT

In a movie that asks audiences to rewire their brains to plant new faces and voices on some of cinema's most iconic characters, Chewbacca serves as a steadying presence, an immediately familiar colossus of fur and fangs that looks the same as when we met him 40 years ago. But the loyal Wookiee has also undergone necessary changes, the role forced by time into the hands of a new actor and the character pushed to new depths by the nature of the franchise's new era-hopping normal.

The approach to Chewbacca taken by Joonas Suotamo, the 31-year-old Finnish actor who has taken over from Peter Mayhew as the man inside the Wookiee suit, fits the character's new circumstances — and, in a roundabout way, the performer's outlook on life.

"I approached it as if he was a dog, having been just found on the street or something," Suotamo told SYFY WIRE shortly after Solo: A Star Wars Story's Hollywood premiere. "There was that rescued-dog quality to Chewie. Having grown up with dogs, I think I have this intuition on how dogs behave. Chewie is a very likable creature, but he has just been through a lot and he doesn't know where he's gonna go next, because the world has been a pretty ugly place for him."

So, was Suotamo simply tapping into a long, sympathetic history with large, abused canines? Not exactly. His tone changes entirely when that's even suggested.

"We had Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. They're small, with floppy ears. Really cute," he says, all 6 foot 11 of him lighting up at the memory. Could they ever get vicious? "No, they're the loveliest dogs," he assures us, still smiling.

This seems right. Suotamo has spent the past few years publicly living out a dream in relative anonymity. His enthusiasm for the Star Wars franchise has been palpable, from his red carpet appearances, gag-filled Instagram account, and behind-the-scenes interactions — SYFY WIRE spotted him snagging a selfie with Donald Glover as the polymath actor, who plays Lando Calrissian, was being whisked around the bowels of a Pasadena convention center. Suotamo, a new father who stands 6 foot 11 and has a smile almost as wide, is unabashed in his enthusiasm for Chewbacca and the experiences that the fur suit has afforded him since joining Star Wars as the stunt Wookiee for Mayhew on The Force Awakens.

A former Penn State basketball player, he also takes nothing in his new world for granted, and works hard to find a careful balance between Chewbacca's animalistic appearance and more anthropomorphic, self-aware personality. This is Star Wars, after all, where giant pussy slugs can be warlords and a little green muppet is the wisest being in the galaxy.

Because his canine experience has largely been with soft, lovable show dog breeds, he says he "looked to gorillas for the vicious stuff." Angry, violent simians helped inform his feral early scenes — we won't spoil them here — while further exploration of the Wookiee's mind, along with what he learned from Mayhew, assisted in establishing Chewie's more general posture and movements.

"You gotta embrace your weight and make sure you're relaxed and seeming like you have 150 extra pounds on you," Suotamo explains. "You relax your arms, have gorilla arms, and that helps sell it. And he's more powerful in this film [than other Star Wars installments]. He's not yet set in his ways as a smuggler, but he's constantly wary. He's like a dog, who don't really look at one point when they're walking. They sort of just lumber forward with their own thoughts."

While his height made him a natural fit for the job, his Finnish heritage guaranteed his survival in the giant fur suit, which for all the incredible advances in movie technology, is still not particularly well ventilated. "I'm glad I had experience with the sauna thanks to Finnish culture, so I could take the heat," he says, laughing. "I jokingly say that, but I really mean it. Being in a sauna is very much like being in the suit. It can get overwhelming in there."

These are the things you can only learn from experience. Suotamo took over the Chewbacca role full-time on The Last Jedi, a recent ascension that wound up making him the elder Wookiee statesman on Solo. Director Ron Howard's movie marks the first time audiences see multiple Wookies since the beloved '80s TV special set on Kashyyyk — again, no spoilers beyond that — and while Suotamo was too busy on set to provide much training, he does envision future Wookiee-focused spinoffs.

"It was very emotional for Chewie, to be coming in and seeing them for the first time, because that reminds him of home and the job that he really wants to do," Suotamo says. "And I wouldn't be surprised if we someday see Chewbacca going back to find his friends and maybe liberating them from much bigger forces."

As for the number of Wookiees on screen, Suotamo admits there can only be so many. "Maybe there'd be more of a group of them, because it's just so hard to manage those suits."

Joonas Suotamo Chewbacca

Joonas Suotamo blowing minds at Cannes. Credit: Getty Images

He hasn't gotten the call for Episode IX yet, though it would be an all-time surprise if Chewbacca suddenly disappeared from the fight against Kylo Ren. In the meantime, Suotamo is working to expand his acting career beyond Wookiee work, and wouldn't mind slipping out of hot suits altogether once in a while.

"I'm always open for other opportunities and would love to try to tackle interesting roles," he says. "I think it would be mostly roles with high-power, high-status individuals. I would love to play some sort of a commander of a military group or something like that."

Han Solo ultimately became a general, so why not Chewie?

Solo: A Star Wars Story hits theaters on May 25.