Peter Mayhew was one of the original members of the Star Wars cast to come back for The Force Awakens. After also making a cameo in the prequels, his return to the franchise was assured.
Unfortunately, the actor's 7'2" height, which helps make Chewbacca what he is, also caused health problems for Mayhew, resulting in knee surgery on both legs. That meant for some of the more physical scenes, he needed a stand-in.
BusinessInsider tracked down the actor who took on the role, 6'11" Joonas Suotamo, who graduated from Penn State with a film degree. The Finnish man, however, pursued basketball (he played for the Big Ten college too), heading back to Finland, where he played for a European club team, while also working in video-production and selling insurance.
"I just didn't believe my chances to get any acting part were possible because of my size, so I studied more behind the camera," Suotamo said. Ironic, then, that his size was a key factor in his first professional acting gig.
The actor found out an unnamed movie production was looking for a 7-foot-tall blue-eyed man via his national basketball coach, and submitted a video audition before he had any idea what the movie for which he was trying out. He had been a fan of the original trilogy, and once he figured out it was Star Wars, thought he was auditioning for a new character.
"I took three trips there [during the audition], and on the first time I got more details and realized what my role would be," he said.
That's when he went back to watch and rewatch the first three films, studying how Mayhew moved as Chewbacca, similar to how he studied other basketball players and mimicked their movement on the court.
In his five months on set after being cast, Suotamo worked very closely with Mayhew, learning from the elder actor about how Chewbacca behaved and moved and reacted to situations. The exact scenes that he appears as the character on screen haven't been revealed, and Suotamo says he "will never get into it." He hopes to continue playing Chewbacca alongside Mayhew in future films.