Just as the anticipation surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens reaches fever pitch, everybody’s favourite Wookie is headed to Brisbane. We caught up with Peter Mayhew, the man in the Chewbacca suit, to talk about old friends, new co-stars, and giving credit where it’s due.
When the second teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens dropped in April, it got closer to breaking the internet than Kim Kardashian ever could. You know the one — after a slam-bang montage of action sequences, it fades to black. “Chewie,” we hear the voice of Harrison Ford say, as Han Solo and Chewbacca emerge from the darkness, “we’re home.”
The film is certainly a homecoming for Peter Mayhew, who first suited up as Chewbacca in 1977’s Star Wars (the original recipe). Working as a hospital orderly at the time, Mayhew was cast on the strength of his towering 7’3” frame and an appearance in just one other film (he played The Minotaur in 1976’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, after that film’s producers spotted him in a newspaper article about men with unusually large feet).
Ever since then, this gentle giant has been a big part of the enduring appeal of the Star Wars franchise. He doesn’t provide Chewie’s voice (that honour belongs to legendary sound designer Ben Burtt), but his long, lanky physicality provides Chewie’s distinctive screen presence, and his eyes provide Chewie’s soul.
Now he’s suiting up yet again for The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams’ revival of the hallowed sci-fi franchise — and it’s his presence, along with fellow returning veterans Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Anthony Daniels, that’s helping the film tap into such a deep vein of nostalgia.
Those three simple words — “Chewie, we’re home” — caused fans around the world to tear up, because they were finally home, too. Plenty of those fans posted ‘reaction videos’ of themselves watching the trailer for the first time — so how did Chewie himself react?
“Absolute pride,” beams Mayhew, who’s heading to Brisbane in November for the Supanova Pop Culture Expo.
“When I saw it, I had 7,000 people around me. We were at Star Wars Celebration, and George said… no, JJ said, ‘Do you want to see a trailer?’ And everybody says, ‘Yes, please’. The lights go out in the hall, I’m looking up at the screen, and I’m thinking it’s just going to be the sand dunes and blah blah blah. But then Han and Chewie are there, and the line is, ‘Chewie, we’re home’. And everybody in the hall is crying, or laughing, or cheering, or whatever. And I just thought, ‘Wow. How can we not have a success when you get 7,000 people reacting like that?’
“Even the Lucasfilm people, even [producer] Kathleen Kennedy, she’d been up on stage all day, and she was crying. I was standing six or eight feet away from JJ, and he was just going, ‘Hmm… I like this’. It was terrific. It was a terrific thing that we were able to do, and it was such a good way of getting it out to all these people. It was marvellous. It was one of those moments… it gives you pride in what you’ve established.”
While Han and Chewie are inseperable on screen, Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew have taken very different paths since the original Star Wars trilogy. Ford has become one of the most successful actors of all time, with roles in too many hit films to mention, while Mayhew — hidden behind a mask, and with no pretensions of movie stardom — has never strayed too far from the franchise that’s made him such a draw at conventions like Supanova.
In other words, they’d drifted apart, but Mayhew says that as soon as the duo got back together on the set of The Force Awakens, the old magic was there.
“Harrison’s one of the guys,” he says. “We’ve been friends for a long time, and he’s always been about giving advice and talking things through. He’ll ask what you want to do, and he’ll tell you how he wants to do it, too. He’ll say, ‘No, let’s try [the scene] this way… don’t look over there, look over here’. Just little things. He’s got a really soft voice, but I know he’s very interested in what’s going on, not only as an actor, but almost as a director. And as a friend!
“There was a marvelous camaraderie on the set, right the way down to all the guys who were working as part of the crew. It couldn’t have been better.”
The Force Awakens isn’t just a Class of ’77 reunion, however. Relative unknowns John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are playing two of the lead roles in the film, and Mayhew admits he had an easier time warming to one than the other.
“John, I liked very, very much. He’s a great actor. We had several scenes together, and John is one of those guys who knows how to react to any situation. He’s got a marvelous face… he’s got a wonderful personality. He has an advantage because he has a comic’s sense of humour.
“Daisy… was a little bit solid. More like Natalie [Portman] on the other movies [the prequels]. But I think, once she gets to see everything going on, she’s going to enjoy it, because it’s going to relax her. She’s going to be one hell of an actress. She will tell you, she will say, ‘I never thought we could do this, but now I see it’.
“When we were at Star Wars Celebration, she was completely different to how she was on set… I think she got taken aside by her agent and told not to be too stiff. So we watched her blossom, from a quiet young lady, into the girl who was there at Star Wars Celebration. She had blossomed; she was beautiful and full of personality. I think she’s got a lot of personality still to come out, and if the right movies come along, she will do very, very well.”
With our time running out, I have to ask him one question that’s bothered me since I was a kid. At the end of the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are given Medals of Bravery by Princess Leia for their role in destroying the Death Star. Chewie, who played just as important a role, stands off to the side without a medal. What gives?
“I think you better ask George [Lucas] about that,” Mayhew laughs. “Actually, I think it was one of two reasons. One, they didn’t have enough money to buy me a medal. Or two, Carrie couldn’t reach my neck, and it was probably too expensive to build a little step so that I could step down or she could step up and give me the medal.
“But we did right that wrong when the MTV Movie Awards came along in 1997. 20 years later, Carrie finally put a medal around my neck, and that was it!”
Peter Mayhew will appear at Supanova Pop Culture Expo at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre from 27-29 November. Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be released on 17 December.
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