If you’re like just about everyone else, you’ve probably seen “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and noticed that Chewbacca gets a sizable amount of screen time. He finally gets to fire that crossbow gun of his, for one. Blows stuff up real good.
Peter Mayhew played the Wookiee in the original trilogy and was back for more this time around, but he was limited to scenes that didn’t require much moving around. Being 7 feet 3 and 71 years old will do that to a man: Mayhew often has to use a cane after double knee-replacement surgery in 2013. So director J.J. Abrams needed a similarly sized person to don the furry costume for the action scenes.
Enter Joonas Suotamo.
If you’re saying, “Wait, the Joonas Suotamo,” you’re probably the biggest fan of one of the most anonymous programs in major college basketball. You see, the Finland native played basketball for Penn State from 2005 to 2008.
At least in the sense that he was on the Nittany Lions’ roster: Over his three seasons in Happy Valley, Suotamo scored just 22 points before a foot injury derailed his college playing career during his junior season. He was more a force (heh) in the classroom, earning academic all-Big Ten honors in 2007 and 2008 and winning the team’s scholastic achievement award in 2007.
“He was great 1-on-0. He was skilled, he could shoot, he was long. You could do drills with him,” Kurt Kanaski, the former Penn State assistant who recruited the 6-foot-11 Suotamo, told PennLive.com’s David Jones. “But you’d put him in a game and he couldn’t react to how he was being guarded. It took him too long to process things.”
Suotamo majored in film at Penn State, and in 2007 a Hollywood producer named Gerry Abrams spoke in one of his classes. Seven-odd years later, Abrams’s son was directing Suotamo in what’s probably going to be the highest-grossing film of all-time.
“So, when he was cast, he told J.J. he had met me,” Gerry Abrams told Jones. “J.J. was kind of stunned.”
As for how Suotamo got the role, being really tall certainly helped. Also the fact that he studied Mayhew’s movements from the original trilogy.
“We had a wonderful guy, this Finnish actor who is twice as tall as I am, playing Chewbacca in many of the action scenes. They were both fantastic,” J.J. Abrams told Yahoo. “There’s something about growing up 7 feet tall or more, 7-2 I think — that he had this love and respect and connection for this character of Chewie all his life. The fact that he got to play Chewie in so many scenes was a powerful thing for him but Peter was often there while Joonas was doing this, almost as a consultant.”
Here’s Mayhew on the left with Suotamo:
— Matt Turner (@_bmturner_) January 5, 2016
Suotamo is sworn to secrecy about exactly how much Chewbacca is him in the movie and how much is Mayhew. “I will never get into it,” he told Business Insider’s Jason Guerrasio recently. “That’s for people to guess and figure out.” And when asked if he’ll reprise the role in Episode VIII, Suotamo said he assumes “things will stay the same.” But it’s safe to say that his basketball career is done, along with his post-basketball career in Finland.
“I’m not planning to go back to selling insurance,” he said.