How 'Star Wars' Star Joonas Suotamo Crafted Chewbacca's Most Emotional Scene
[This story contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker]
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has produced no shortage of reactions and emotions among an audience that is largely divided over the film. However, at least one consensus has emerged in terms of the film’s most effective moments, and that’s Chewbacaca’s heartbreaking reaction to Leia’s passing. According to Chewbacca actor Joonas Suotamo, the moment was just as painful for everyone on set.
Heat Vision breakdown
“I remember having some issues with my jaw being so sweaty that I had trouble opening the mouth of the Chewbacca mask. So, I was a nervous wreck underneath the mask,” Suotamo tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Everyone was really tense. It was agonizing to deal with that situation because we were essentially living the actual reality of it — that Carrie had passed — and now we were shooting the scene where her character passes. It was a very emotional day, and watching it is still very emotional for me.”
At the end of 2015’s The Force Awakens, fans were incensed when J.J. Abrams had Leia bypass Chewbacca in order to hug Rey (Daisy Ridley) after the loss of her newfound father figure, Han Solo. Such a snub echoed a similar moment in 1977’s A New Hope when Leia rewarded Luke and Han with Medals of Bravery but not Chewie. However, Suotamo reveals that The Force Awakens shot and cut a consolation scene involving Chewie and his grief over Han.
“For The Force Awakens, we actually shot a special scene — a consolation scene for Chewie — which didn’t make it into the finished film or the DVD. The thought process behind it was a little bit different than what ended up being in the film …”
In a recent conversation with THR, Suotamo also discusses original Chewie actor Peter Mayhew’s advice for playing the character, his own future as Chewbacca and his favorite Millennium Falcon co-pilot.
So, was Chewie actually cheating at Dejarik (aka holochess)?
Well, over the years, Chewie has found that winning at that game proves to everyone that you rule the Falcon and all its gadgets. So, it’s important to win at all costs. I’ll let that be my final word on the subject. (Laughs.)
How are you feeling about the end of Chewie’s run (for now)?
I’m so happy with the way the Skywalker saga ends. I’m really excited for people to see and experience it. I think it’s multifaceted and detailed. I’m just really happy about how Chewbacca fits in to the picture. He’s been with the Resistance and Rebellion for so long, and it’s great to see that he’s out on an adventure with his friends again.
How has the costume changed since you first donned it in 2014?
There are only some small differences. I think they have to do with making the mask more durable. There’s a lot of wear and tear that can happen because it’s a silicone skin on a mask — on a hard case — that’s molded according to not only my face but also the Chewbacca skull shape. So, it’s a really technical thing. There have been some improvements, but the basis for the mask has remained the same ever since the original films.
How difficult is running with the mask and suit on?
It’s actually not difficult at all. Because the mask is so tight on my face, it doesn’t hinder my visibility; I can see fine. And it’s not that heavy. So, it’s not a hard thing to do. I can move fine, but sometimes, I wear these small heels to make me a couple inches taller because I’m only 7’0.’’ (Laughs.) That hinders me a little bit but not too much. The intention was to match Peter’s listed height from when he was younger, but when doing running scenes or action shots, we sometimes did not use the high heels.
Did you suffer in the desert heat of Jordan?
Oh, man. Yeah, it was pretty boiling. Luckily, we found Peter’s old “cool shirt,” which has ice water running through the torso. That was a really helpful gadget that I wish we had found three movies ago. (Laughs.)
When Peter Mayhew took you under his wing, what was the most valuable tip he gave you in terms of playing Chewie?
There are several little tips. I think I had the character down, somewhat, from watching the original films, but his unique physicality was really something I needed more information about. The neck thing was key. Chewbacca is always watching and observing at an angle, and I think that had something to do with Peter’s physical anatomy. He always moved in a certain way, and he always observed at an angle with his jaw dropped. I think he just turned his head in a different way, especially in his later years. That was a really important consideration for me.
The Chewie voice combines numerous different sounds including bear and seal sounds. Do the sound designers also record your Chewie voice and mix it in with everything else?
There might be one sound that I make in this film, but mostly, it’s the bear and whatever animal sounds they use to make the original Chewbacca voice.
When you first read The Rise of Skywalker script, did you think Chewie had met his end when the transport exploded on the desert planet of Pasaana?
I was pretty shocked, but I was confident Chewie would pull through. I did get some worried looks from my wife at that point.
After the missed hug in The Force Awakens, did J.J. go out of his way to make sure that Chewie didn’t miss out on any hugs in Episode IX?
(Laughs.) I guess so. Chewbacca got to hug Leia at the end of The Last Jedi, which was a cool moment. Carrie Fisher and I made a point to have a special moment in that closing Falcon scene. But, the story is so huge that these small mishaps — as some people call them — don’t weigh as much when you’re bringing the Skywalker saga to an end. I’m just glad we corrected the Leia hug in The Last Jedi.
For some reason, I can imagine J.J. cracking jokes about hug-proofing the movie, but it certainly sounds like he had his hands full on this movie.
Yeah, the weight on his shoulders when we were shooting TROS must have been so huge. I didn’t bring that up and would never. My take on The Force Awakens’ missed hug was that Chewie was so preoccupied with helping Finn that his time to grieve and hug people came later. For The Force Awakens, we actually shot a special scene — a consolation scene for Chewie — which didn’t make it into the finished film or DVD. The thought process behind it was a little bit different than what ended up being in the film, and those kinds of things always affect the final decision-making on the day.
Chewie’s reaction to Leia’s passing was heartbreaking to say the least. Can you talk a bit about shooting that moment?
I remember having some issues with my jaw being so sweaty that I had trouble opening the mouth of the Chewbacca mask. So, I was a nervous wreck underneath the mask because I knew this moment was so important to the film, and I wanted it to be perfect. But maybe that helped me get into the right mindset. Everyone was really tense. It was agonizing to deal with that situation because you were essentially living the actual reality of it — that Carrie had passed — and now we were shooting the scene where her character passes. It was a very emotional day, and watching it is still very emotional for me.
Hearing Chewie’s anguish was already painful, but when such an imposing figure collapses to his knees and flails his arms, it makes his reaction all the more impactful.
Exactly. The whole film turned out to be beautiful, but especially those five minutes. When Han died in The Force Awakens, you knew that you were still going to shake Harrison Ford’s hand at the end of the day. So, yeah, Leia’s scene was definitely more difficult.
There was a moment on the Falcon where Chewie said something to Rey, and she replied, “It is.” Do you remember what Chewie said to her?
I think Chewbacca is saying something like, “It’s good that you’re back in the Falcon because Poe has been damaging the Falcon with his reckless, shifty flying.” So, I think it’s a small jab at Poe at that point. (Laughs.)
Another touching moment is when Leia — via Maz — gives Chewie the Medal of Bravery, ending the 42-year snub. What was your first reaction to this?
I was celebrating. It was the greatest thing. The whole ending weaves together all the storylines one last time, and it was wonderful to see that happen. It was also great to have the Maz character do it because Chewie and Maz seem to have this history together. Hopefully, we’ll learn something more about that in the future on some other story, but, yeah, I just really enjoyed how that played out.
That was Han’s medal, right?
I think so. It would make sense, yeah. Nobody told me whose medal it was, but I’m thinking it was Han’s.
When Poe and Finn rescued Chewie on Kylo’s destroyer, Chewie seemed surprised by the fact that they came to rescue him. Poe responded to him by saying, “Of course we came for you, Chewie.” Were you also surprised that Chewie seemed to think he was expendable?
I think Chewie lives in the moment sort of like dogs do. (Laughs.) I don’t think he puts a heavy emphasis on expectations like humans do. I also think Chewie is joking or being a bit sarcastic when questioning them, but it is also possible that he thought all hope was lost at that point. I do think he maintained his sense of humor throughout the experience and was ready to deliver the punchline when his friends came to save him.
When you prepared for the scene where Chewie reunited with Lando, did you think back to all their times together in hopes of conveying that familiarity on the screen?
Yeah, I did. Chewbacca knows this guy, and he ends up helping them out in the desert. I really felt the same warmth for Lando and Billy Dee (Williams). They’re both great men that I’m really happy to see again, and they both can help us in our mission. Chewbacca is practical in that sense. If it was a more relaxing get-together, it would’ve included more bonding, but they had a pressing issue as they needed to get going and find the ship in the desert. There was no time for celebration even though they definitely have a history together.
You’ve shared the cockpit of the Falcon with just about everyone at this point. Which captain or co-pilot has the best jokes or banter in between takes?
Harrison was flying the Falcon, and I needed to look back and yell something at Finn. I didn’t realize at the time why I was looking back, and I asked J.J., “What’s my motivation for doing this?” Harrison then looked at me and said, “It’s for the money, stupid.”(Laughs.) So, I learned that early on, and it was so true.
So, one of my favorite moments in this entire trilogy was when Chewie, Han, Finn and Rey were leaving Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens. After the group rescued Rey and got back in the elevator to leave, Chewie picked up Han’s parka that he threw on the ground when they arrived and handed it back to him to put on. Han proceeded to give Chewie one of the funniest and most bewildered reactions to this gesture. What do you remember about shooting that moment?
(Laughs.) I’m pretty sure I improvised that. I gave the jacket to Han, and then J.J. thought about it before realizing, “Oh, yeah, he has to have the jacket since we’re going outside.” So, it was left in, and I was really happy about that. I might have come up with it during rehearsal first, but it was one of my only ideas that got to stay in the film. I’m really proud of that scene, and I’m so happy that you noticed that. It’s so comedic that Chewbacca is worrying about Han’s jacket.
I’m also quite fond of Solo. Do you keep in touch with Alden (Ehrenreich) at all?
I do keep in touch with Alden every once in a while, but I haven’t seen him since the premieres. Every now and then, we’ll message each other, and I hope he’s doing great. If we ever return to Solo, I can’t wait to work with him again.
Despite the on-set drama, which was likely overblown a bit, was that still a great experience for you?
Absolutely. It was a long shoot, and there was some controversy. But, all that stuff happens outside of the film set. Actors don’t get involved with that. We were still having fun and shooting a film that we enjoyed. Visual effects supervisor Rob Bredow, who now runs ILM, took so many photos and made a book of behind-the-scenes photography [Industrial Light & Magic Presents: Making Solo: A Star Wars Story]. He really captured the process, and it was wonderful looking back and reminiscing about those scenes.
Lastly, do you think you’ll play Chewie again someday?
I’m just gonna have to say … (Suotamo performs his Chewbacca voice.)
That’s a perfect response.
(Laughs.) I think Chewbacca — more than anyone — is never really gone. So, I’m really hoping. I wouldn’t say no to more Star Wars ...
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