How Peter Mayhew Taught Joonas Suotamo to Play Chewbacca
For people to remember something, it needs to be unique. Peter Mayhew, who died April 30 at 74, made Chewbacca unique just by being real — even though Chewie happens to live in space in a fantastical world. Even though the character easily loses his temper, at his core is the warmth, loyalty and friendship that Peter brought to Star Wars. That’s the mixture of shades we see when we look at Chewbacca — he’s a complete being. So Peter created something that we will always remember.
I first met Peter on a sunny day in a backlot at Pinewood Studios, a day or two before we started filming The Force Awakens. We were in his trailer, and as he stood up, I realized what a gigantic man he was. And as I talked with him, I realized what a big heart he had. He generously told stories and encouraged me — we were going to bring Chewbacca to life together for The Force Awakens. To this day, no one knows which scenes I did and which he did for that movie, except the crew. It was a very warm, very exciting time.
After Force Awakens, we spent a week at what we called Wookiee Boot Camp.We would watch old footage of Peter as Chewbacca, and he would explain why he did the things that we see in those legendary scenes. He was very generous with the information. I appreciated that so much, because it was a delicate situation stepping into his shoes, to become the character that he had been all his life. Always in my mind has been the objective to honor the character he created, because I’m as big a fan of the series as the next guy. To bring dishonor to anyone who had been a part of starting these great movies would be very disappointing.
What I came to realize over time is how much Peter put his own personality into Chewbacca. Peter wasn’t a professional actor; he was playing that character as himself in a way. As soon as I realized that, I realized what I needed to do. Just watching him speak about this character and being himself, every second was a worthy lesson, and I will always treasure that.
After the Solo premiere, he said that my performance was as good as it ever could be. That meant so much to me, because he had been so supportive. I knew that it was bittersweet for him to let go of the role, but I assured him that all I ever do is honor his performance and Chewbacca himself, which is honoring Peter, too.
Peter was a unique person, too — and not just physically. You can see that in his charity work, and the way he met with fans and carried the mantle of Chewbacca. He loved the fans so much, especially the 501st Legion, which does such great work with children. It’s a beautiful thing to see the legacy that Peter left behind, and I hope to contribute to that. I’ll always remember where Chewbacca got his start, and how much he means to people.
— As told to Alex Fitzpatrick