When Joonas Suotamo was young, he wanted to be Luke Skywalker.
“I had blonde hair, so I figured I would also get to swing a lightsaber and be a part of all that,” he says with a wry smile. “But once I realized that I was two heads taller than everyone around me, I figured maybe it was better to play someone else.”
It’s best to get it out of the way immediately: At 2.12 meters, Suotamo is tall. When he walks into a room, you notice it. But it’s more than just because of his stature: Suotamo is unfailingly kind, easily approachable, and just as excited to talk about Star Wars as he is about his son, Aatos. Born during the making of the STAR WARS sequel trilogy, which comes to an end this December. He has a warm, rock solid presence, the kind that makes it easy to see why he was cast as Han Solo’s most trusted friend.
Suotamo took over the part from Peter Mayhew, who retired from acting after THE FORCE AWAKENS in 2015. Since then he’s played the iconic Wookiee in THE LAST JEDI, SOLO, and next in the upcoming RISE OF SKYWALKER. It’s been a long journey for the kid in Espoo, Finland, who once dreamed of being a Jedi.
Says Suotamo: “When the opportunity to play Chewie came, I realized that Luke was never in the cards. But then I watched Peter and his performance in the films, and I saw that Chewie was this major presence everywhere he went. He was a connection for the audience to Star Wars. You saw him, and you knew that we’re somewhere else entirely. His presence justifies everything else that comes into the story.”
Hidden away in a conference room labyrinth, myself and two other freelancers got a chance to meet with Suotamo and gab about all things Star Wars. Except for RISE OF SKYWALKER, which remains still in post-production and under heavy secrecy.
It’s been a hectic day for Suotamo, who has already endured hours of interviews with major outlets, and we’re the last ones he is due to meet.
The saga is finally coming to an end, and you’ve been here since FORCE AWAKENS, how does it feel now that we’re so close to the finish?
Wistful, but all good things come to an end. Hopefully one day we’ll see more Star Wars movies in the future. Not that I can complain. I’ve had so much fun doing these films, and I have nothing but gratitude that J. J. (Abrams) is back to finish the story.
Is there anyone in particular that you’ll personally miss after all this from the crew or cast?
Oh yeah, that’s not a long answer at all! [Laughs.]
I’ll miss everyone, of course. I remember how Daisy (Ridley) really liked hanging out with Aatos when we brought him on set. Oscar (Isaac) and I have the same age kids, so when we were filming in Jordan, our children played together at the hotel. I’ll miss all of that. But, if there will be new adventures where Chewie can be around, maybe we’ll have a chance to meet again.
It’s such a shame that SOLO hasn’t gotten a sequel confirmation.
Oh boy, yeah. It left so many things open, but sadly the box office wasn’t on our side.
Were there plans while filming about where the story in SOLO would go, or was it just a “let’s see how this works for now” kind of atmosphere?
I didn’t hear of any plans at the time, but I believe that everyone wanted to continue making them immediately if it had been a box office success. But timing wasn’t on our side, and that didn’t happen.
Many actors will happily report on how they “stole” things from the films they made. Did you take anything with you from set?
I didn’t, no. I felt that I couldn’t. They’re being used! People need them! The feeling that you’ll be coming back and wearing this suit again was so strong that I couldn’t just take stuff. I kept thinking that I’ll be back for it one day.
Do you have a favorite Chewie moment from the new films?
In this new one, depending on how the puzzle gets put together, there’s some really great moments. But in THE LAST JEDI I had the Porg eating scene, which I thought was one of the funniest things in the new series.
THE LAST JEDI also has one of my favorite Chewie gags in the series. It’s the scene where Chewie, in total frustration, throws his hands in the air screaming bloody murder as the Porgs begin dismantling the Falcon. It never fails to make me laugh.
Yes! [Laughs] Oh you’re just enjoying his misery. It was wonderful, the Porgs were just such a brilliant invention for the film. But they tasted even better.
Will we get something similar this time around? Which endangered species will Chewie eat next?
Something small and fluffy! Well the setup for this one is that it’s been a year, and the resistance is nearly destroyed. And our group of friends get together to find a way to save the galaxy once and for all. It’s such a good setup that allows us to be together and not apart again, at least in the beginning.
Mayhew in his biography and before spoke about the training it took to bring Chewie to life, do you have a favorite actor to look for inspiration in physical acting?
Rian Johnson suggested that I learn from Buster Keaton. And Chewie needs that kind of heavy, clumsy presence to him. Not all of that is me, it comes from the history of the character.
You’ve been directed by three great directors to date, how does the experience change from set to set?
The difference is in the atmosphere. J. J. for example is a prankster who likes to make the crew laugh. He’ll be on the on-set mic making sounds and narrator voices. For example, if you’re late to set, we’ll wait for you and he’ll make sounds to amplify your footsteps as you’re coming in.
Rian’s set, on the other hand, felt very educational. Like I was back at Penn State in film class. Because he was surrounded by a young crew, and everything just dripped with love for cinema at every level. It was so great to see. Ron Howard was a seasoned pro. It was terrific to work with each one of these filmmakers.
You’ve now worked with two generations of Lando. First with Donald Glover in SOLO, and now with Billy Dee Williams in RISE OF SKYWALKER.
I was so happy for Billy Dee that he got to come back. He’d been talking about it for years, and it finally worked out. He was so excited to be back on set, and man is he still smooth. It was so cool to fly in the Falcon with him. It’s such an earned and deserved thing for him to return.
Have you had a chance to meet George Lucas yet?
Yes, at the premiere of Solo. He was telling me about how hard it was to find Peter and was just a gent all around. Apparently that’s the one thing we have in common with Peter: We were both hard to find. Tall guy with blue eyes. I’m so grateful that J. J. wouldn’t work with contacts. He had tried them on Star Trek, but they didn’t look right, so he demanded that the actor for Chewie would have blue eyes. So that worked out!
Do you still get overwhelmed by the sets and everything that goes into making these things?
On set, yeah, kind of. But when you’re at home, and you’re feeding Aatos porridge, you do end up thinking ‘was it all a dream?’ The first four years were like a haze, but now that I’m a father I have to be realistic. You know; Star Wars is there, but I’ve gotta change these diapers. You can’t sit back all the time going; man, this is great.
THE LAST JEDI made some decisions that riled up some fans, how much of that do you think we’ll see in RISE OF SKYWALKER?
I can only say that in J. J. we trust. He just has an innate understanding of this style and how to tell these stories. We’re not just ending the sequels; we’re ending three trilogies, so the bar is set incredibly high. But it also points us into a direction very clearly. Where we’re going and how this all must end. I think the ending is massive and brilliant. I don’t know how people will react, but I’m excited to see how it ends. I actually stopped reading the script at one point and just filmed. So, like you, I’m excited to see how it ties together.
How was the transition from basketball to film?
Well, even when playing basketball I just kept dreaming about film. I kept thinking that something will happen, it has to. So the move was pleasurable. I love basketball for the technique and practice, but I didn’t like how much of a fight it was. Especially for tall guys. It didn’t suit my build.
So what does the future look like?
Oh, awful. [Laughs]
I don’t know. We’ll see where SW goes, but I’ll be trying out for parts, maybe something else involving costumes.
With these combined skills you could always try for a part in Space Jam 2.
[At this point we’re told that we have time for one last question.]
Quick! How does RISE OF SKYWALKER end?
Finally! This is what I wanted to talk about all along!
I can’t tell you anything. But seriously, we will just have to wait. All I can say is that it’s the kind of ending, for all nine films, that it’s going to make a lot of people really happy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is released in theaters 18.12.2019.