[dropcap]M[/dropcap]ovie Farm recently spent some time with Jonny Mathers, who has responded to a casting call from Walt Disney Pictures for an actor over seven feet tall. What with a bunch of new Star Wars films looming on the horizon, Disney (who bought out Lucasfilm last year) is going to be needing a Chewbacca, and Mr Mathers might just be the man they’re looking for…
MF: Apart from being the perfect height, what is it that attracts you to the character of Chewbacca?
JM: For me, it’s always been the fact that Chewbacca’s a gentle giant and I identify with that because people sometimes tend to think because of my size, I’m quite a scary looking bloke. Sometimes I get the impression that people want to stay clear of you or are completely fascinated with you – or somewhere in between. Chewbacca is this big figure in the Star Wars series that I can identify with, especially as a kid. When I was younger I was always tall so I grew up looking for a role model, a lot of people get their role models from sport which I have never been into so for me it was all about sci-fi. Because Star Wars has always been there in my life, Chewbacca was the one thing I’ve always identified with.
I feel there’s a bit of similarity between his character and mine – he’s gentle and kind, good at fixing things – he’s got the technical skills to fix stuff around him. He only tends to get aggressive when he’s protecting people he cares for.
MF: So you can identify with being the loyal sidekick?
JM: Yeah, Chewbacca’s always there – if you need someone to hold a door open, he’s there holding the door open. If you need someone to carry that massive blaster, he’s the one carrying the big blaster. He’s the protector of the group.
MF: Is this the first acting role you have gone for?
JM: Professionally? Yes. I’ve never done any professional acting before. Some amateur stuff when I was younger but I’ve always been involved in some way with drama productions. In school I was always the one helping out backstage.
I’ve also got a degree in animation – there’s a certain amount of acting that goes with that as well. 3D Model animation, which is what I did, is all puppet work so a lot of the time I had to act in front of a mirror to be able to replicate gestures and movements in the models.
So, a lot of experience in that sense, but being in something like Star Wars would be totally new to me and it’s a little bit daunting now it’s getting serious!
I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the Star Wars films recently, mainly just the Chewbacca bits purely down to the fact that the Star Wars fan base, as you know, are probably the most dedicated fan base you’re ever likely to meet and they can be aggressive towards anybody who is going to spoil their most cherished thing.
I wouldn’t call it hate mail but I have had ‘suggestive’ emails from quite critical Star Wars fans. I had an email from a guy in India who is a fountain of Star Wars knowledge down to stuff that even I didn’t know – the colour of the artificial hair they used in the new costume compared to the Yak’s hair they used in the original movies…
MF: …yup, they’re out there…
JM: …they are out there – but on the whole it’s not been nasty. Peter Mayhew is Chewbacca and always will be Chewbacca so I think it’s the idea of someone else coming in and taking over probably scares a few people.
MF: That must be quite exciting, the more public awareness your campaign is getting, the more positive and I guess, negative feedback you’re getting also.
JM: It is strange, I didn’t expect this to happen! This literally started out with my parents getting in touch after hearing something on the radio about them looking for a 7ft 3 man and they said ‘Why don’t you apply?’ I told the wife who thought it was amazing and the next thing I knew was getting an invite to join the ‘Get Jonny into Star Wars Episode VII’ page to which she said she wanted to see how much of a response it could get.
And it’s kept building and building from there. If I do get a call back, which I really hope I do – I almost feel like I’d be letting so many people down if I didn’t – it would be amazing but I’m not getting too carried away. This all started on a Monday night and by Wednesday I had someone from the BBC calling me and the next day a mention on Hollywood News – so who knows.
MF: Is it Sci-Fi roles in particular that interest you or can you see yourself being maybe the next really tall Sherlock Holmes for instance?
JM: I am sensible enough to realise that I am 7ft 3 – if I do end up going into acting, in any capacity, I’m going to be the bloke in the rubber suit – 90% of the time. That’s the way it’s going to be.
You’re going to be the creature or the gigantic psycho killer or some snot coloured green alien – I’m quite happy about that.
MF: Do you think the fans would be disappointed if there were no Chewie in the new Star Wars film?
JM: I can’t speak for other Star Wars fans but I’d be completely mortified. All the rumours about the new films seem focussed on that it will be set around twenty years in the future after Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker is supposed to be in – Han Solo and Leia are meant to be in it, the Droids are bound to be in it and Chewbacca’s got to be in it – I don’t see any way that he can’t be.
MF: Given the vast improvements in CGI in recent years do you think it’s important for a character like Chewie to still be played by an actor in a suit?
JM: I think it’s really important because the one thing I always remember about Star Wars, and I think it’s the same for a lot of people, is that nobody identifies with Chewbacca being a guy in a suit, he’s just Chewbacca – there doesn’t seem to be any sort of idea that he’s not a real person – or alien rather.
When Star Wars was made the budget was really low and a lot of the aliens, especially in the canteen scene were a bit ropey. But for me, I always thought Chewbacca looked like a real person.
It was always Kenny Baker [R2D2] that I felt sorry for – stuck in a tin can in the middle of a desert!
MF: What do you think a new Star Wars film can bring to existing fans of the franchise and younger audiences who are not so familiar?
JM: I think with Star Wars, because the concept is that this happened a long time ago in a galaxy far away the story is timeless. New generations are always getting into Star Wars because it doesn’t seem to ever go away – it’s always been there.
I definitely feel like Return of the Jedi wasn’t the end, like it still wasn’t finished. At the end, everyone’s ok, everyone’s celebrating and then it just cuts out – what happens next?
MF: How would you celebrate winning the role?
JM: Quietly. If I won the role, I wouldn’t be allowed to tell anybody I was in it! Get all the family round probably in some soundproof place and have a party but a very tight-lipped one.
MF: If chosen for the role do you think you will have a ‘rider’ or a list of green room demands?
JM: Hm – I don’t know really! I’m quite simple in my demands – I don’t require a lot. I’ve been in bands for years but we’ve never been in a good enough band to get a rider so it’s never really crossed my mind.
If I’m allowed to be a bit picky, I’ll ask for a cold glass of Newcastle Brown at the end of the day or perhaps some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. That’s probably about it – I’m not going to make some poor guy pick the green M&Ms out of a brandy glass!
MF: Is there anyone involved with the original films that you are particularly interested in meeting?
JM: It’s kinda funny – one of the lads I work with was saying the other day ‘you do realise if you are Chewbacca, you’ll get to hang round with Harrison Ford every day’ – which didn’t even cross my mind I suppose. I guess I would be asking him stupid questions about being in Blade Runner or what it was like to be Indiana Jones – whilst dressed as a Wookiee.
What would you ask the guy – what would you talk about with Harrison Ford? Someone told me he’s quite cranky but I don’t believe that. I don’t think someone who has played Deckard, Han Solo and Indiana Jones can be cranky.
I don’t ever think I’ve seen him in something bad – even Working Girl was good.
MF: Do you think there is a risk of overexposure in that making a whole new trilogy of Star Wars films will take away from what the originals achieved in the 70s and 80s?
JM: I think that’s a worry to some people. For me, I just think they’re adding more to the story. It could potentially ruin it if they got it wrong. The original three films, episodes four, five and six are what the fans call the Holy Trilogy – the best that sci-fi could get. When Phantom Menace came out, lots of people weren’t sure. I definitely thought the prequels got better as they went on.
The next three could go wrong – it’s going to be the fan base that makes or breaks it.
MF: There are rumours that the new films are going to concentrate on the origins of the original characters; what would you like to see for Chewbacca’s background story?
JM: I’d like to see how he and Han Solo met – I think that’s a big thing amongst the fans and because it’s mentioned in the films, this whole Kessel Run thing – what’s special about this space journey that they managed to get through it in a spaceship that everyone else calls a piece of junk [Millennium Falcon]?
It’s how that relationship starts and grows I’m interested in seeing. In Empire [episode five], when Han Solo is being put in carbon, Chewbacca is absolutely distraught. They freeze him and Chewbacca’s left without his best friend – it’s really sad!
MF: What movies are in your all time favourite collection?
JM: Empire Strikes Back is probably my all time favourite film, purely because of the amount of despair in it – and it’s the film with the most revelation also. Luke’s getting his Jedi powers, Han and Leia’s love story is starting to develop and you learn more about Obi-Wan Kenobi. Chewbacca gets more of a mention in Empire, you get to see more of his personality. Plus we get to meet Boba Fett!
Other top films – Return of the Jedi has got to be in there purely because it’s the one in the trilogy with the most action.
I’m a big Kevin Smith fan – anything Kevin Smith has put his stamp on, I love. In fact, one of my favourite films at the moment is Red State, one of the best pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. John Goodman is superb in it! The Crow is up there – probably because I like comic books so much. It’s a really harrowing yet clever story. Visually amazing as well. For vampire films – it’s gotta be The Lost Boys. I love all vampire movies but The Lost Boys you can believe in it just a little bit more than others. It’s an eighties film, focussed on teenagers, all with cool hair. When I was a kid you couldn’t get away with hair like that – not in Cumbria where it’s all farmland and tourists. If you went round with some military jacket on and a poodle perm at the back you’d get beaten up. The other one I should mention is Convoy. Convoy is – how would you describe Convoy – it’s basically about trucks with a bit of politics thrown in. It has one of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie though.
MF: And finally Jonny, the original Chewbacca, Peter Mayhew, has said in interviews that the only time he was comfortable in the suit was when shooting in below zero temperatures in Norway; if you won the role do you have any idea of how you would cope with being ‘a walking carpet’ as Princess Leia put it?
JM: Honestly – I don’t do very well in hot weather [laughs] so this has been brought up! I think the thing to remember is that if I get a role, whether it’s Chewbacca or any other Wookiee – I don’t mind being any other random Wookiee – you’re in Star Wars. Does it matter whether you’re suffering, does it matter if you’re overheating – it’ll be a small price to pay to be part of something so huge – something that’s been part of my life for so long. So yeah – I’ll take on a bit of suffering.
To support Jonny in his bid to become Chewbacca for the next generation, check out his Facebook page