You couldn’t call it one of those phone calls every actor dreams of getting, because every actor isn’t a 7-foot blond Finn, like Joonas Suotamo.
He was playing basketball for the Finnish basketball association when the call came in from representatives of Star Wars franchise producer J.J. Abrams, who were looking for a 7-footer with blue eyes. Suotamo’s name came up.
He not only has the height and the eyes, he’s also an actor. Or at least he played a gorilla while a getting a degree in film at Pennsylvania State University, where he also played basketball from 2005 to 2008 before being sidelined by a foot injury.
“I really went to Penn State to be an actor as well. They told me I was too tall,” said Suotamo, in town for the recent Wizard World Comic Con, where he was promoting his role as Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Spoiler alert: He got the part, even though his acting experience was limited to a high school play, a few short films, and the time he spent imitating that goofy running style of teammates on his pro team in Finland, where he also did a stint in the Army.
Still, when he heard what the casting director was looking for, he felt optimistic.
“I really don’t know anyone besides myself who is 7 feet tall and has blue eyes,” said the former Penn State center, who scored a handful of points in limited minutes for the Nittany Lions.
And it may have been the eye color that did it. Suotamo would be standing in for Peter Mayhew, the actor who originated the Chewbacca role, also a blue-eyed fellow. “I heard after the fact [Abrams] was desperate to find someone with authentic blue eyes who was tall enough to play the character because he had some trouble with contact lenses,” Suotamo said.
At first, his involvement was a bit of a secret. He was hired to serve as a body double for an injury-hobbled Mayhew in The Force Awakens (let’s call him a Wookiee cushion), and ended up being called upon to play the character in a few scenes.
“Peter’s knees weren’t in top shape. They needed someone to step in when he was not able to, so I got to do a lot of stuff with Harrison Ford, and that was an amazing experience,” he said.
He wanted to do more, and certainly got his wish in The Last Jedi — where Mayhew was credited as a consultant — and Solo, in which Chewbacca’s character arc is extensive. The story covers the origin of his friendship with Han (Alden Ehrenreich), and also delves into the particulars of Wookiee species, culture, and role in the social structure we see depicted in the movies.
“This is really a Chewbacca movie as well,” said the actor, who credited director Ron Howard and writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan with giving his character so much attention, and so much “dialogue.” Suotamo had to learn the catalog of Chewie mannerisms that help get his meaning across, and the emotion behind it.
Of course, it turned out to be a case of be careful what you wish for: Suotamo’s key scenes with Ehrenreich took three weeks of 10-hour days to shoot, with Suotamo in a hot, sweaty suit that got heavier as it got wetter.
“I worked my ass off,” Suotamo said.
Which is why he’s so thrilled to have the movie finished, and ready for public inspection. “It’s a great story,” he said. “People are going to love it.”
And the next installment? What’s going to happen?
“Nobody tells me anything,” he said.
Meanwhile, he’s looking for non-costume work as an actor. “That’s what I’m going for. I’m in the process of breaking though to get some proper representation, and all that stuff.”
While at Wizard World, he ran into a few Penn State buddies in the production business, and they’re helping him put together a reel.
He wants to impress people with his skills, not his height.
“I’ve never identified as a tall person. I’ve always identified as a normal person. But looking at my kindergarten photos, I was always three heads taller than everyone else. So I must have been delusional.”