Penn State Hoops Alumnus Joonas Suotamo’s Journey To Becoming Chewbacca Featured On ESPN’s ‘E:60’
“There are so many basketball players, but there is only one Chewbacca.”
Kaarlo Suotamo — the father of former Penn State basketball player Joonas Suotamo — said it best in the introduction of his son’s E:60 feature. The show chronicled the former Penn State basketball player’s journey from the hardwood of the Bryce Jordan Center to the big screen, where he now makes his living as Chewbacca in the series of Star Wars movies.
Joonas Suotamo spent two seasons in Happy Valley on Penn State’s men’s basketball team. Suotamo’s coaches, teammates, and fans all had high expectations of his career, especially after working out for the coaching staff.
“When he did his first individual [workout] with us, he was so long,” former assistant coach Kurt Kanaskie said. “He went so hard, he wanted to be so good and learn. We walked off the court and said ‘this guy is going to be an NBA player.'”
Suotamo never lived up to the hype, as he had trouble adjusting to the pace and tempo of the college game. A foot injury in his freshman season left him frustrated, but when the times got tough on the basketball court, he focused on his academics.
Part of the reason why he chose Penn State was because of the strong film program offered in Happy Valley. He clearly had a talent for acting and jumped at the opportunity to be in projects whenever he could.
“Joonas was in our senior film class,” Maura Shea, a film professor in the Bellisario College of Communications, said. “He was great at working with people. He loved to act when there was the chance to be in projects. He always knew how to work a costume.”
Suotamo skipped his senior year of basketball at Penn State and graduated from the university with a degree in film. Unsatisfied with his college experience, he returned home to Finland, where his love for the game of basketball was rekindled.
Suotamo rejoined his local professional team, but also sold insurance and helped film corporate videos in order to make a living. As fate would have it, the Finnish Basketball Federation got a phone call from a casting director for a “big-budget Hollywood film.” The director was looking for a seven-footer with blue eyes for the role, and luckily, Suotamo fits the profile perfectly.
After sending in an audition tape, Suotamo got the phone call of his life in the parking lot of a shopping mall: He was going to appear in select scenes as Chewbacca in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. He landed the full role in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” after Peter Mayhew retired from the role.
Suotamo didn’t get the role without putting in the work necessary to be Chewbacca. He trained with Mayhew, who played the role of Chewbacca in the original Star Wars trilogy in the 1970s. Mayhew put the former basketball player through a week-long “Wookie Boot Camp,” which helped Suotamo learn the fundamentals that make Chewbacca one of the most beloved characters in the Star Wars series.
Star Wars fans that fill movie theaters across the country will once again see Suotamo in his element when “Solo” hits theaters on May 25. Suotamo’s natural athleticism brought him to Penn State, but it came in handy for his role in the 2018 film.
“Chewbacca is a very physical character,” director Ron Howard said. “His athleticism means a lot, so I was excited when I saw what Joonas was capable of.”
After feeling like a “loser and quitter” following the conclusion of his college basketball career, Suotamo found a home in the Star Wars universe, something that he only could have dreamed of doing as a kid.
“I still sometimes wake up thinking, ‘oh, wow,'” Suotamo said. “But it’s real. I’m in a ‘Star Wars’ film.”