With Chewbacca making a guest appearance in Wookie Hunt, the final episode of Clone Wars season 3, we chewied the fat with original Star Wars actor Peter Mayhew. Called in to offer his advise on animating the famous furball, nobody knows the mighty Wookie quite like 7'3'' Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in the three original Star Wars films and Revenge of the Sith.
How did you get involved with Clone Wars?
When they announced they were going to make Clone Wars, I thought maybe Chewie could appear. We were at a convention and somebody asked 'Is Chewie going to be in Clone Wars?' As normal, I said 'I don't know, you'd better ask the management.' Matt Wood, the sound guy for Lucasfilm, was on the panel and after a while I started making wookie noises. I thought no more of it and then I got a phonecall a couple of days later and it was Dave Filoni [supervising director of the Clones Wars] asking if I'd be interested in voicing Chewie in the show. Of course, I said 'Yes, please.'
So how did you contribute to the animated version of Chewie?
Because it's such a distinctive character they wanted to look at how I walked and body language and stuff like that. So there's quite a bit of me in the animated version of Chewie. And they've captured it very well.
Which features in particular define Chewie?
I think it's the knock-kneed walk. You think about it. If you've got big feet and long legs, something is going to bend and it's the knees. And then there's body language: the twist of a shoulder, for example. But most of it is the eyes which are very important. You're reacting through your eyes. And then there's head bends and little inflections. When you get the head going one way and the eyes another, there's a lot of character there.
You got to see the Chewbacca suit you wore in Star Wars when you visited Skywalker Ranch. That must have brought back some memories…
Yes. Very much so. It's a shame that everything has to be degradable. It's going to wear out and it's had its life, but it's being looked after very well at Skywalker Ranch. I'm perfectly happy that they're looking after it because it's not a job that I would want. People say 'Would you want the costume?' And I say 'Not really', because you don't want to take your work clothes home; that's my way of looking at it.
You also lent your voice to some of Chewie's distinctive growls for the very first time. How was that?
We saw the episode without my sound and we went to the recording studio and ran the film again. I did some fairly high range sounds and then Matt Wood said 'I want some low, guttural sounds', which I was able to do. And in about 30 minutes we'd done it. So Matt put it together using some of the original noises as well as mine.
What are your fondest memories of filming the original Star Wars films?
Probably the chess game in Star Wars. You've got three of us sitting there, me and Threepio and Artoo. Harrison Ford is doing the controls, Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill are playing bat and ball with the lightsaber. We had three or maybe four cameras on us at any time. We started to shoot and I said to one of the techs, 'There's nothing on the chessboard.' He said 'Yeah, don't worry about it; we'll put it in later.' So I had to act like I was playing chess. It was quite fun to do because you had the robots talking and it was interesting.
There were other scenes, cockpit scenes and stuff where we got the dialogue wrong. Of course, George Lucas loves to write in techno-speak and Harrison was complaining that he couldn't get it right. Now there's a lot of interesting stories that hopefully one day will come out and they occasionally come out at conventions.
After a few drinks?
Well, that does help. It helps embellish the stories! Especially if some of the boys get together like Kenny Baker [R2-D2] and Jeremy Bulloch [Boba Fett] and myself. They've all got a different take on what happened. And it can be quite interesting. We have a good time.
What was the hardest part of filming the original Star Wars movies?
Getting used to the heat I think. It was alright when we were on location but when you're in the studios there's a lot of light and you're in a costume that retains the heat. That's probably the worst bit. But you just grin and bear it. Let's put it this way: there are a lot of jobs that don't pay as well and are a darn sight worse.
Which was your favourite Star Wars movie to make?
The Empire Strike Back. It gave the character a lot more scope to do what he could do. In Star Wars he's a background character, whereas in Empire he becomes one of the major character. His personality comes out. He can smell danger and usually takes evasive action. It's just a question of having the character there that you can develop.
Do you think that was down to the director, Irvin Kershner who was keen on creating memorable character moments?
Irvin to me was a showing director. What I mean by that is that he knew what he wanted and he would show you. Then he'd give you the chance to improvise and use your imagination and, as long as got what he wanted, he didn't mind how it was done. I liked him as a director and I liked him as a person. All the directors were good on all the movies.
How do you think the Clone Wars version of Chewie holds up to the original?
It's as good. If you take a close up of the Clone Wars character and you put it alongside a photo of Chewie, there's very little difference. To me they've done a wonderful job. Even when George first saw it he said 'Yep, that's a wookie.' So it's got his approval, which is a big thing.
David Prowse turned down the chance to play Chewie because he wanted to be Darth Vader. Do you think you could have played Vader if that hadn't of been the case?
I don't know. I reserve judgement on that. He would certainly have been different. Dave is a lot squarer. Dave would have turned Chewie into General Tarful from Episode III because he's built that way. Big muscles, big chest. He would have been a totally different character. He would have almost been a Rambo or a Schwarzenegger. But the way that it turned out I'm glad he turned it down. No disrespects. I probably could have done it, but I probably wouldn't have had as much fun as I did with Chewie.
Has George Lucas changed much over the years?
George is just the same. He's got older, but everybody gets older. I saw him about a month ago. He will never change. George is still a big kid at heart. He loves his family and he loves the people who work for him.
How did you first meet him?
It was at the interview for the Chewie role at Elstree studios in London. I walked into a big office and on one of the walls there were drawings of all the characters. I saw Darth Vader and thought 6'7''? Nah, too short. But Chewie was 8 foot plus with blue eyes. I sat down, and the door opened and George walked in with Gary Kurtz. I stood up and George said, 'Um, I think we've found him.' And basically that was the interview. Within an hour or hour we were down at the costumers getting the suit fitted. I hadn't got the contract yet, but I knew it was there for me if I wanted. So I said yes, and it basically changed my life.
Don't miss Wookie Hunt, the Clone Wars season 3 finale, from Saturday 26 March on Sky Movies Premiere/HD