Comic-Con. It’s a veritable safe haven for the nerdy and socially disinclined. And the most recent iteration—located in the Big Apple—was no different. Costume-clad fans romped about exhibitor halls as armies of bespectacled, overweight “Slave Leias” invaded the halls of the Jacob Javitz Center. Lou Ferrigno, stormtrooper Anthony Forrest and a slew of others made an appearance, but no geek God was more resplendent than Peter Mayhew.
Standing over seven feet tall, the English actor plays Chewbacca, the Star Wars wookie and popular culture fixture. As close to a real-life B.F.G. as they come, Mayhew would be an intimidating figure if not for his ever-present smile, his gentle voice and his unending appreciation for his fans. Heeb caught up with Mayhew at Comic-Con and tried not to drool too much.
How did you first land the role of Chewbacca?
A job came up where they were looking for someone big. George [Lucas] walked into the room and said, ‘I think we found him!’
It was that simple?
It was that simple. It took about 20 minutes.
You didn’t do any screen tests or –
Nothing whatsoever. We talked about the different things about Chewie, how the character was gonna be, and the next thing I knew we were at the costume shop getting the costume made.
Did you figure out how you were going to move as the character with George or was that an independent process?
It was an independent thing. Remember, Chewie doesn’t speak, so you have to play him as a mime artist. Therefore, you have to have the awareness, when you’re with other people, that you don’t stand there for too long in the same place. So you make your character up.
[In The Empire Strikes Back], Chewie became one of the big six [characters]. Your character builds and builds and builds, and fans know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s relatively easy because you just know out of instinct, ‘This is right, that’s what he would do, that’s not what he would do.’ Because time is money. They [the crew] would tell you if [the performance] is not right. That’s the premise I was working under.
So you were allowed to do whatever you wanted to do?
Basically, I was allowed to do what I wanted. It was fabulous. George looked at it and he’d go, ‘Yes, that’s what Chewie would do. Okay, fine!’ He’s a weird character, but he’s a unique character at the same time. Because when you allow droids and robots to do what they want to do, who’s gonna stop the wookie?
Right. He’ll pull your arms off!
Now you mentioned he doesn’t speak, but he does grunt. That wasn’t you, right?
No. That was a brown bear that they found in San Diego. They recorded it when it was happy, when it was sad, when it was hungry and when it was full. That way, you’ve got all four emotions. You chop those up and take them back [to the studio].
Was there a conversation ahead of time, or in your mind you knew they weren’t going to use your voice?
I knew. Nobody ever said anything, but I couldn’t maintain that high pitch, you know, noises.
Do you come to a lot of these conventions? How many conventions will you do in a typical year? Or just signings anywhere?
We [he and his wife Angie, also present] average maybe two per month, and that could be anywhere. Two a month for eight months.
And you do a lot of traveling for it, I imagine.
We go all over the world. Not only in the States. [We go to] England. We’ve gone to Australia, Japan … Over the years, we’ve built up a reputation that, if we’re gonna be there, we will be there. If we don’t … you better have a damn good excuse not to show up. It’s unprofessional. Therefore, we walk in as a professional.
A lot of the dealers, and fellow actors like Lou [Ferrigno from The Incredible Hulk, seated at a nearby signing booth] go, ‘Hi Peter! How are you! Haven’t seen you for some time!’ It’s great. It gives you that energy. Sometimes you’re like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to do this.’ Every job gets [like that]. This is another job. You’re working three days a week. You’re enjoying it. Why not have a smile on your face?
Do you meet new people, new actors, new writers at these conventions? Are there people that you’re familiar with on the circuit that you keep in touch with?
There’s a lot of people. Book writers, like Mike Stackwell [author of several Star Wars novels]. Cartoon guys, writers—you name it. We’re all in the same genre. You want to be able to have a good relationship. If you’re working in the same area, chances are you’re going to be socializing with each other. Might as well enjoy the people.
Is that a rare thing for you these days to appear inside the famous suit?
Last time we did that, it was for Episode III. It was great. Had a wonderful time.
Had you been contacted for the prequel series before Episode III?
No. There were vague promises. ‘When we get to it…’ I had always been expecting [to be in Episode III], but with film companies and stuff, you never know when the production is going to be.
How long were you there for shooting?
Two weeks. That included a remake of the costume. Chewie was younger, so they had to remake the costume. I went down to meet [the film’s cast], which was absolutely wonderful.
The new generation.
The new generation, which all grew up on the old stuff.
Was that Kenny Baker in the R2 suit again?
Yes, that was Kenny. [Pauses] Kenny got, uh, credit for it. How much he actually did? [Laughs] But Ewan [McGregor] is great. Hayden [Christensen]? Very, very good actor.
Had you met any of them before at premieres or anything?
No. But they are so likeable. They’re good guys and they’re willing to listen to the older actors like me and Ian McDiarmid, who plays Emperor Palpatine. Even Natalie [Portman] came up [to me]. “Hello! Have I got scenes with you?” I said, “No, sorry darling, we’re on our own!”
But my favorite story is this: I was getting a haircut. I’d been down there for about a week … Suddenly the door opens, and this figure – I’m sitting in the chair, there’s a mirror on the wall over there and I look – it’s Christopher Lee. He came over and, [in a deep voice]: “Hello, I’m Christopher Lee. I believe you have more screen time than I do!” I went, “Holy shit!”
ANGIE: We found out later that he’s a real count! In Italy, he has an estate and he’s a count.
So he’s Count Christopher Lee playing Count Dooku?
He is! We found this out because we were in Italy doing a convention. His estate was only fifty miles up the road.
You were a fan of his?
I love his stuff. The two people I admired [while playing Chewbacca]: one was Alec Guinness [who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original trilogy]. I grew up with black-and-whites, all the 40s stuff. There was him, and Christopher Lee. They were the two guys.
So you had your own fanboy moment.
I was aghast. It was really amazing.
That’s so funny, especially because you’re used to this whole [convention] scene.
Yeah. People come up to me, they all go, “Ahh!” I know exactly how they feel. I do the same thing with certain people. But that was wonderful. We had a great time. Another time, I was talking to Hayden and I said to him, ‘Look, this is your chance to enjoy yourself and make a name for yourself.’ Then we were in London for the Episode III [premiere], and Hayden came up and said: ‘What you said to me in Australia has come true. Thank you.’ He is a very nice young man. Hopefully success hasn’t gone to his head.
Now, about 10 years ago, Chewbacca died [in the Star Wars novel Vector Prime]. Was there any consulting with you ahead of time?
I got a phone call saying that they had written a book where Chewie gets killed. This was about a week before release. Then we also heard on the radio that Peter Mayhew was dead. Some DJ in the states had picked it up and misread it. That went around the wires – I was in England at the time – we got phone calls from Angie’s kids, they go, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Yeah, why?’ ‘Oh, someone said you were dead!’ It got around locally, but nothing serious.
So it didn’t bother you at all? You lost no sleep over it?
No. And apparently it takes two satellites [in the book] to take him out. Two satellites, can you believe that? Two big asteroids! You can’t kill a wookie that quickly!