Entertainment

The Guy Who Plays Chewbacca Reveals What It's Like to Live as a Wookiee

solo chewbacca actor interview
Walt Disney Pictures

This story contains minor spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Playing Chewbacca, Wookiee luminary, Star Wars icon, the sidekick who holds a mirror up to other sidekicks and shows them that they're clowns, isn't an easy job, but someone has to do it. That someone might as well come from a culture centered around saunas: It's hot in the Chewie suit, and if you're wearing it, you're wearing it for about 10 hours a day sweating sheets. But that's just fine for actor Joonas Suotamo, the 6-foot-11 Finnish actor who stars as Chewbacca in Solo, the latest Star Wars movie: "The main part of playing Chewie is that you have to withstand heat," he says with a warm, resonant laugh, "and I can do that because I've grown up living in a Finnish society where we go to the sauna every week and just torture ourselves."

Saunas, of course, are for relaxation, and holistically speaking, there's nothing comfortable or relaxing about playing Chewbacca. For one, there's the role's physical component. "Part of playing Chewie is to make it look cumbersome, make Chewbacca look heavy and very strong," Suotamo explains, speaking to Thrillist about his second outing playing Han Solo's right-hand Wookiee in Solo: A Star Wars Story. "I think there's a certain feel that the character has on the screen, sort of a heavy but still likable presence that Chewbacca has on screen. That's what I try to do, not to appear like a man in a suit but like a creature. That's my goal." Therein lies Chewie's balancing act. He's a lumbering bruiser, but an irresistibly huggy lumbering bruiser. Most monsters inspire fear at first sight. Chewie inspires affection.

That's rooted in our fondness for the character, which Suotamo qualifies as "eternal." "We're talking about characters that we've known for 40 years. It's a really cool, Biblical thing that happens here," he says. "I love it. I love the vastness of the universe of Star Wars, that anything could happen, everything will happen, that kind of feeling." Chewie is the rare kind of character who transcends the movies he appears in: There's familiarity, the sense that we know Chewbacca personally. He's an old friend, regardless of who's stowed away in the costume.

Granted, that familiarity is rooted foremost in the efforts of Peter Mayhew, who originated the character in Star Wars, played him in The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Revenge of the Sith, split Chewie duties with Suotamo for 2015's The Force Awakens, and then served as the Chewbacca consultant (his actual credit) for The Last Jedi, marking Suotamo's first full-time foray in the costume. Naturally, Mayhew provided Suotamo with the initial template for bringing Chewbacca to life. "It was easy for me to go back to the original films and watch Peter's performance, and just know what I had to do to move in a similar way," he says, validating his own enthusiasm for the classic Star Wars films. He's not just an actor in a Star Wars flick. He's a Star Wars die-hard, too.

It's one thing to love Star Wars; it's another thing for Kathleen Kennedy taps you, a lover of Star Wars, to play one of the most beloved characters in the series. "I feel so lucky. I feel like I won the lottery when this happened. It's not even something I joke about," Suotamo says, though equally as important for him is the responsibility he felt making Chewie his own. "You have to really pay attention when you're filming," he adds, referring to the pains he took during shooting to ensure Chewie's emotions registered. "I try to do it through this mask, and through this character that's behaving very differently and moving very differently from myself."

joonas suotamo
From left: Director Ron Howard, Suotamo, actor Woody Harrelson | Loic Venance/Getty Images

That's where the other challenge of playing Chewbacca comes in. Star Wars isn't a blank page you can write any old story on. It's Star Wars, one of the great genre-defining franchises, the summer blockbuster that spawned the summer blockbuster, and all of the ancillary and tangential materials that followed in the wake of its release. For Suotamo, fandom is an essential aspect of his character. "That comes second nature to me, because I'm a big fan," he says. "It was one of those stories that I clung to as a kid, and I really feel like the character comes first. So I do the character as I feel the character should be done, and so far have gotten very good feedback from it. I think that's the correct way to do it."

That philosophical approach comes through in Solo: Chewie is every bit as you remember him from the Star Wars films of old and the Star Wars films of the 2010s, yet he's more of an active presence. Given more to do from scene to scene, Suotamo found more space to explore Chewie's personality. "That was interesting to play, certainly. He's a character with a mind of his own, with desires and dreams, and we had to show those, and we had to do it in a way that gives the character his deserved depth, because he's a very total character." The film is about Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), after all, which means it's also about Chewbacca, and the misadventures that solidified their friendship. Rounding out Chewie as a character comes with that buddy movie territory.

We first meet Chewie, for instance, chained up in a muddy pit, where Imperial officers have dropped Han for deserting battle. (Han got his start as a petty thief on Corellia, his home planet, before signing up to serve in the Imperial army, a halfhearted gesture made as a means to his own ends.) The sequence immediately recalls Jabba the Hutt sicking his pet behemoth, the Rancor, on Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, which raises the question of how Chewie graduated from "dungeon monster" to "co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon," a task Suotamo tackled head-on with Ehrenreich. "We always agreed that it was a developing relationship," he recounts, "that it wasn't going to be this one thing, that it would start and go through something into something."

Or consider the action set piece buried deep in the film, when Han and Chewie, escaping a mining colony as one stop of their whirlwind intergalactic escapades, stumble upon Wookiees in chains serving as forced labor for the colony's brutal overseers. This isn't the first time the Star Wars movies have shown Wookiees in peril -- see the invasion of the Wookiee homeworld, Kashyyyk, in Revenge of the Sith, assuming you have the stomach to revisit Revenge of the Sith -- but the moment is shocking nonetheless. It's also crucial to understanding Suotamo's conceptualization of the character. "It was such a beautiful thing," he says. "It's the meaning behind when I say that we get to see a totally new Chewie. It's basically that scene, because he shows that he's his own force in all this. It's a really powerful scene, I think, and I loved seeing it on screen."

Solo: A Star Wars Story shows us the purest version of Chewbacca we've seen in a Star Wars film yet. He might be a hirsute, 8-foot-tall monster, but even non-human characters in Star Wars movies are defined by their humanity. That classic genre subtext hasn't eluded Suotamo: "They reveal something about the world," he says of movie monsters. "They ring true." He then cites Andy Serkis, of Fox's Planet of the Apes reboot series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as an influence on his method of seeking humanity in the inhuman. "The way he embodies the total thing of the character, and moves, and inhabits that creature likeness in Gollum, or Planet of the Apes... It's just a very good example of how these characters are supposed to be played."

Suotamo takes his cues from the best, but the key to his performance in the Wookiee getup is his enthusiasm for the work. It's infectious. Talking with him means reaffirming your love of Star Wars if you're already a fan, and becoming a fan if you're more the lukewarm sort. Yes, Chewie is a seasoned smuggler, and yes, he might delimb you if you beat him at Dejarik. But if you make a friend of him, you make a friend for life. That's the spirit of Solo: A Star Wars Story, as well as the spirit of Suotamo's portrayal: A camaraderie that's lasted four decades and beyond, for Han, for Chewie, and for Star Wars buffs like Suotamo.

"It's a wonderful thing to bring to screen."

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Andy Crump is a contributor for Paste magazine, The Playlist, WBUR's The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter @agracru.