Had to Get it Right: The Wookiee and the Droid

Photo by Dean Ansley

Brian Herring, the puppet master being the droid BB-8, and actor Joonas Suotamo, who plays Chewbacca in the current run of Star Wars films, joined moderator Riley Blanton in Hyatt Regency VI–VII Saturday afternoon to discuss their participation in and contributions to the saga. They came to the work from different places, but both appreciated the good fortune and responsibility getting the roles entailed. Henning had a long career before coming to Star Wars that included acting on television and in theater in the UK. He eventually found his way into puppetry, even having the opportunity to work with Jim Henson. By the time he joined Star Wars, he had an established track record in the field.

Suotamo’s road to Chewbacca was a bit different. The 7-footer came to Star Wars after twenty years of playing basketball. A collegiate player at Penn State University and a member of Finland’s National team, he was discovered when the casting company reached out to the national team asking for recommendations for someone who met the physical requirements of the part. By the time that call came, Suotamo was doing freelance video work. He prepared a video playing a caveman who gets shot with an arrow to the knee. The rest is the stuff of Star Wars history.

Entering the world of Star Wars was a consequential moment for both these men. Suotamo came to the franchise aware of its power and was a big fan of Abrams’ work. Blessed by the opportunity, he appreciated moments on the set like the one when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) first stepped onto the Millennium Falcon and declared to Chewbacca that they were home, and even more the shooting of Solo’s death scene. Henning pointed out that a lot was riding on The Force Awakens and everyone knew it had to be right. Further, filming at Pinewood Studios meant that there was a generational dimension to the production that included artists and craftsmen whose family members had worked on the original Star Wars films in the ’70s.

Henning was 7 years old when Star Wars: A New Hope premiered and was immediately hooked, collecting all the toys and keeping them! In fact, he recalled the note sent home by a teacher to his mother advising her that he really needed to get away from Star Wars and focus on his studies. His approach to BB-8 reflected his appreciation for the significance of the franchise’s place in cultural history. He and his colleagues recognized that they had “huge shoes to fill.” Their goal was to create something that could stand alongside and join the pantheon of iconic Star Wars characters.

Suotamo also appreciated the importance of the role he was assuming. Peter Mayhew had a unique physicality that shaped the creation of Chewbacca. As an actor charged with the role and a fan who had a life-long love for the films, he had to focus on continuity. This meant not only studying Mayhew’s movements and posture but getting as much guidance and direction as he could from the actor himself. Suotamo described Mayhew as open and welcoming, willing to give a lot of advice even though he knew he was relinquishing the role. Suotamo was deeply appreciative of Mayhew’s gift to him and praised him as an actor, mentor and part of the Star Wars family (Mayhew died earlier this year). Henning added that having done costume work himself, he could attest to the difficulty of Suotamo’s charge. Not only did he have to manage the discomfort of a heavy suit, he had to emulate the exact physical movements so critical to the character. He heaped praise on Suotamo for his hard work and dedication.

Suotamo really enjoyed being able to explore the development of his character’s friendship with Han Solo in the stand-alone Solo film. He appreciated the that there was an arc to their relationship that had to develop over time. When asked about it, Suotamo expressed hope that a sequel will happen. The audience received a special treat when Henning and Suotamo filled in for the audio when Riley Blanton played the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker and experienced difficulty with the track. Replete with dialogue, sound effects, and Wookiee roars, the two gave the audience a moment to remember. It was a moment of joy shared between Star Wars fans, those in the audience and on stage.

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