Penn State Alum, Former Basketball Player Is Officially The New Chewbacca

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by Geoff Rushton

When the Star Wars franchise was resurrected with the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, British-born actor Peter Mayhew returned to the role of Han Solo’s Wookiee sidekick Chewbacca, a part he played in the first three Star Wars movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But Mayhew, now 71, wasn’t in the fur suit for every scene. Another actor was needed for the more physical scenes.
That actor was Penn State graduate and former Nittany Lion basketball player Joonas Suotamo. Now the mantle officially has been passed.

A native of Espoo, Finland, Suotamo will take over the part full-time in the untitled Han Solo standalone movie, which is set for a 2018 release. On Tuesday, he posted a heartfelt statement on Twitter announcing that his casting is official.

“Chewbacca is one of the most iconic characters in the history of film, and Peter’s development and portrayal of this beloved Wookiee has spread so much joy across the globe,” he wrote. “Peter’s guidance and kindness have been invaluable gifts which warmed my spirit and prepared me for this journey. I aspire to make Peter proud and bring Star Wars fans the Chewie they know and love.

“See you in a galaxy far, far away… *Wookiee fist bump*”

The 6-foot-11 Suotamo graduated from Penn State in three and a half years, receiving a degree in film and video studies in 2008. An injury early in his basketball career set him back, and he didn’t have much impact on the court. He was, though, twice named Academic All-Big Ten and went on to play in Europe for his hometown Espoo team from 2011-15 before getting into acting.

He was cast as the stand-in for Mayhew in The Force Awakens, which was directed by J.J. Abrams, the son of Penn State alum and television producer Gerry Abrams.

Suotamo told PennLive.com in 2015 that the elder Abrams actually spoke to one of his film classes in 2007, which J.J. Abrams did not know when he cast the former power forward.

Much more than just a guy in a costume, Suotamo knows that Chewie is a favorite for millions of devoted Star Wars fans.

“I discussed with Peter Mayhew at length how he approached some actions and mannerisms Chewbacca would do,” he told PennLive. “I didn’t want to be the guy who gave it away, because Chewbacca is so legendary, who fans would know because he seems off.”

The untitled Han Solo movie will follow the early years of the smuggler-turned-rebel-hero. Actor Alden Ehrenreich plays the young Han Solo, with Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian. The film also stars Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke and is directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Principal photography just began this week.

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