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."