Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.; ISA HARSIN/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock
Jeff Labrecque
May 14, 2018 at 12:00 PM EDT

For nearly 40 years there was only one Chewbacca. In 1977, Peter Mayhew went from being a 7’3” London hospital orderly to portraying the imposing copilot of the Millennium Falcon.

Those furry shoes were inevitably hard to fill, even for Joonas Suotamo, 31, a former basketball player from Finland who shared Chewbacca duties with the 74-year-old Mayhew in The Force Awakens and inherited the role for good in The Last Jedi.

Now, in Solo: A Star Wars Story, Chewbacca shares the spotlight with Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) in the origin tale of their great friendship. Chewie sheds his Ewok and Porg sidekicks and flexes his muscles — both physically and in a dramatic sense — because this movie demands some extra bite in addition to his Wookiee bark. Suotamo spoke to EW about the giant responsibility of making Chewie a bona fide action hero while honoring the legend who created the character.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Chewbacca is so beloved, but for the most part he’s always been slightly in the background. How is the Chewbacca we meet at the beginning of Solo different from the Wookiee we’ve seen before?
JOONAS SUOTAMO: You’re going to see a side of him that’s less cuddly and more let’s-get-this-stuff-done. And he doesn’t care which way you get it done as long as it’s his way. An adjective I would use to describe Chewie would be “stubborn.” He’s a very strong-willed creature.

Co-writer Lawrence Kasdan said that Solo is a love story between Han and Chewbacca. What did he mean by that?
In some ways you can say that what forms is a “love story,” but between those two characters there’s just a deeper bond. And it gets complicated to describe in any other way than that they are two very talented space travelers who are on a task. And I’m happy that this movie combines both the emotional arc and also the daring space adventures that we have come to love.

Chewbacca is already nearly 200 years old in this movie, so he’s not a fresh kid like Han.
He’s [already] lived a life, but in the beginning of our story Chewbacca has fallen on a rough patch. We meet him in extreme circumstances. There are many more action-packed adventures for him to take on. That results in a much more ramped-up Chewie. Definitely there were some choices that I made that reflect the younger side of Chewbacca. I really wanted to show that he was a formidable warrior more than anything else.

Yet you’re still playing a Chewbacca who is almost 50 years younger than the Wookiee we last saw in The Last Jedi. Is his suit different to reflect that too?
There are subtle changes for sure. But also there was a much more demanding shoot [for me]. I think there were five or six suits made just to be able to go from one weather environment to the next. When you’re shooting, you need to prepare Chewie’s suits so much in advance to be able to shoot on the day. It was a tremendous challenge.

With more action scenes, how difficult were the physical demands?
I can see very well from the suit, but in order to reach the crazy height requirement of 7’6″, I have to wear little heel types of things in my shoes — because I’m only [6’10”] myself. So it was difficult, and there were some minor injuries. It wasn’t anything major. Just something where I had to take a few days to rest, you know. But I was back on my feet after those. Nothing was at fault — just the taxing shoot. The suit is [extremely hot], and just composing yourself for 10 hours of filming to deliver what the director wants, shot after shot [is a challenge].

You began playing Chewbacca oppo­site Harrison Ford. Now in some ways you’re the Star Wars veteran who’s breaking in the new kid, Alden Ehrenreich. What was it like to be the more experienced vet in this buddy relationship?
We had a good laugh about that. But really, Alden was such a professional. He did so much work beforehand to prepare. What I admired the most is that he didn’t come to do an impression of someone else or someone’s else’s bag of tricks. He came in and wanted to give a truthful performance of the character at the time that we find him in this story. So you’re going to see something that comes from within Alden, and he really made the character his own, which is what we are all after.

What advice did Peter Mayhew give you about this role? Are there certain dos and don’ts to playing a Wookiee?
We had a weeklong Wookiee boot camp where Peter taught me what he thought was very important for the character. That was so helpful, because we got to go over the flailing of the arms and the upright posture. The thing that stuck to me most was he told me to lead with the chest when walking. That was a very important thing for Peter. Because Chewbacca is a very proud creature.

Entertainment Weekly’s The Ultimate Guide to Han Solo is on sale now.

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