I recently had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Peter Mayhew, the actor who brought the character Chewbacca to life in the Star Wars films. Mr. Mayhew will be appearing at Disney’s Star Wars Weekends May 29-31, 2009. For more details about the event check out Kathy Werling’s blog complete with recent photos. The transcript of my interview follows below, and you can hear the full length interview (~30 min) by clicking the link after the break.
Dave Parfitt: Greetings everyone. This is David Parfitt, Special Correspondent for the DIS Unplugged, and today it is my pleasure to be interviewing Mr. Peter Mayhew. For those of you that don’t know, Peter Mayhew played the character of Chewbacca in four of the six Star Wars Films, and will be appearing at Disney’s Hollywood Studios May 29-31, 2009 for Star Wars Weekends. Thank you for joining us Mr. Mayhew.
Peter Mayhew: It’s a pleasure.
DP: You’ve been appearing annually at Disney’s Star Wars Weekends since at least 2003. Can you talk a little bit about the event for our listeners?
PM: Out of all the major characters, I’m the only one who’s done all the Disney World Star Wars events. So it’s a wonderful opportunity to go down, meet the fans, and just have a wonderful weekend, and anybody that comes should be able to enjoy the weekend as much as we do.
DP: I understand that you give talks about the movies and answer fans questions.
PM: Yep, whoever the guests are will do a Q&A maybe for 45 minutes to an hour answering fans questions, and then we’ll go back to a table and sign pictures and talk to the fans there.
DP: As far as the movies go, I’ve read that you were cast in the role because you fit in the costume. Is that true?
PM: Well, we went out to do the interview, and George was obviously looking for someone big. When I stand 7’4”…
DP: That’s big.
PM: That’s big – even by George’s standards. So I was sitting down, waiting for George to come in to his office. I stood up, and with my height and blue eyes, which are a natural feature, George turned around to his co-producer and said, “I think we found him.”
DP: That was the interview? That was the audition?
PM: That, basically, was the interview. Within an hour, we talked about what we were doing, how the costume is going to work, and what the character was like. Within two weeks, the costume had been made, and we were shooting on our first set.
DP: Had you always planned on going into acting?
PM: No, that was the last thing I wanted to do. But, it’s like wandering down a corridor and you’ve got two doors at the end of the corridor. You don’t know what’s behind one of them, and you know what’s behind the other. Do you take a chance? And that’s what I did. I took a chance. The part was offered, I took it, and the rest is history.
DP: It’s changed your life.
PM: Yeah, completely.
DP: When you put on the Chewbacca costume, does it change you? Does it take a long time to get into character?
PM: No, I’ll go in. I’ll put the costume on, and we’ll be back on set with the costume – but minus the head. Because there’s obviously certain times where you have to do rehearsals right up until the last moment, and you don’t want to wear the mask because it is fairly hot, depending where you are. So once that mask goes on… I can sit down, be talking to people waiting to go on, they put the mask on and Chewie just comes alive. It’s crazy I know, and it happens on every movie. And with the 20 year gap between “Jedi” and “Revenge of the Sith”, I’d worn the costume a couple of times, but when we went back and made the new costume it was just a question of, “OK, here we go again.” And the character was there. I didn’t have to do anything.
DP: It’s a part of you then.
PM: Yep, yep, yeah exactly…
DP: Chewie lives within you.
PM: Yeah, exactly. I don’t know what it is. I’d like to talk to someone about what happens to your psyche when you put something on that brings something else out. It’s a weird thing, and it happens on every occasion. It’s weird. But that’s part of Star Wars.
DP: What was it like to work with George Lucas?
PM: He’s a very quiet sort of guy that knows what he wants. He’s a technical guy for starters. So he does leave a little bit to the actors to create their own roles.
DP: Do you continue to have a relationship with George Lucas today?
PM: Yeah, we don’t see them that often, but, obviously, with the “Sith” being the latest we still see him and get invited to stuff, and if he’s there it’s not a problem. We’ll talk to him, and he’s a very nice… as I say, I’ve known him for a very long time, and he’s lovely.
DP: And he’s had a big influence on your life.
PM: He’s had a big influence on a lot of people’s, not only mine, but a lot of people’s. The whole industry really when you think about it.
DP: You’ve also been able to work with some real movie icons as well. In the original Star Wars film, you were working with British film legend, Academy Award winner, and Royal Knight, Sir Alec Guiness. You are from England, and I’m curious what your reaction was the first time walking onto the set with Sir Alec Guiness.
PM: Absolutely wonderful. It’s one of those memories you never lose. We’re sitting down in the green room. I remember sitting there, and Alec walked in dressed as Obi Wan Kenobi – the whole thing, the beard, the hair. He was totally in character already.
DP: From the very first time you saw him?
PM: That was the first time I ever saw him. He came over and sat down. He had a copy of the “London Times” under his arm, someone brought him a cup of coffee, and he sat down and started to do the crossword.
DP: (chuckling) started to do the crossword…
PM: Yeah, typical English guy doing the crossword. Then other people came in and started talking, and you could talk to him about almost anything. Because it was Summer time, and the English sports were cricket and bowling and stuff like this, and he had opinions, but he would also listen to your opinion. He was a lovely, lovely man.
DP: That’s great to hear. So he was very approachable.
PM: Yeah, and this was on “New Hope” [Star Wars, Episode IV]. He came back to do “Empire”, but we didn’t have that much to deal with [together]. At the premier in London, he was doing an interview with one of the TV stations. I had my parents with me, and he turned around and said, “Hello Peter, how are you?” This was 15 months later, and he still remembered. Just a fabulous old man, a wonderful, wonderful man…
DP: Now did he serve as a mentor to the cast?
PM: I think so. Nope, I don’t think anybody would admit it, but he certainly had an influence on the cast. Because you’d be doing, say, a group shot in the Falcon, and if it went wrong and it was his responsibility he would apologize to everybody, and then go back, and do it again, and in that one his part was always perfect. So that shows the character of the guy.
DP: In many of your scenes in the Star Wars movies, Chewbacca was the sidekick to Han Solo played by Harrison Ford. Did you develop a very close relationship with Harrison Ford?
PM: Yes, it was one of those relationships that started off as two guys, actors, doing a job, but it worked. We had a lot of fun. You look at the relationship, as you just said, it’s not an on-camera relationship. It’s got to come from a relationship off-camera as well as on. Both of us had to know each other fairly well to get that reaction. And it works, it works right the way through all the movies.
DP: So it’s that shared experience you both are having.
PM: Oh yeah, yeah, you almost become brothers. Right? That’s the way I feel about it.
DP: How has the role of Chewbacca changed your life?
PM: Good question. It’s 100% different. I didn’t know all those years ago what was going to happen. Nobody did. And it has given me a chance to do things, meet people, and completely alter your attitude and it’s an indescribable… you can’t say it’s changed it this way for definite… it’s just life is so much better.
DP: And that’s been the path of your life then.
PM: Yeah, yeah, that’s true. So, that’s the way it’s changed.
DP: Do you ever grow tired of being known as Chewbacca?
PM: No, I’ve always said, if I get tired of it, I won’t do it. And I still enjoy it, and what’s there to get tired of? I always think that if people don’t recognize me, that’s when the problem starts. Right? That’s my way of looking at it. It’s great fun. I enjoy it. As I say, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.
DP: Well that’s a great attitude. Your schedule these days is quite busy attending shows and traveling around the world. Can you share any stories of particularly memorable places where you’ve attended shows or incidences that occurred during a show?
PM: Yep, this is a couple of years ago we went out to Japan for the 30th anniversary. We’ve been out there before, and the main thing that’s amazing is the fanaticism of the Japanese fans. It hasn’t changed in about 10 years. They are still there. They are still fanatical. It’s almost god-like heroes. The first time we went out, people were lined up to get autographs and they were literally crying – but with happiness. And that from the Japanese is quite considerable. Sometimes you think you want to get away from it, but you can’t. As quickly as you get out of the convention hall, there’s always 8 or 9 cameras waiting for you as you depart the building. So it’s crazy, but a wonderful craziness.
DP: That must be something to experience.
PM: It is, it is. I think Mark Hamill summed it up over the weekend we were out in Japan. He said, “I enjoyed four days of hero worship. When I’m at home, I’m the garbage man.”
PM: [Hamill said] “I love it out here. At home, I’m just Dad-dear and the bread-winner. Out here, I’m a super-hero.”
DP: You’re not in Japan anymore, the garbage still needs to be taken out.
PM: Exactly (laughs), exactly. I think Mark’s attitude has changed. If the fans want me, I’m going to enjoy myself. That’s the way most of the original cast feel about it.
DP: We need to get Mark Hamill to come down to Orlando sometime.
PM: Good luck (laughs), good luck with that one (laughing). Although Carrie’s [Fisher] done it several times, and I’ve actually been with her on two occasions. That is a crazy situation. Because she loves crowds, and yet she doesn’t. You know what I mean? But she enjoys it when she does it. She comes down, and has a great time.
DP: That’s great. Aside from the fan shows, you also take a lot of time to work with children and make appearances at children’s hospitals. What kind of reaction do you get from the children when they see you in the hospital?
PM: We do a lot of fan work with the 501st. It’s the largest costuming fan group in the world. We go around hospitals at certain times for fundraising events.
DP: Everyone dressed in their Star Wars gear?
PM: Yep, they’ll have the Stormtroopers or whatever character they are, and we’ll go along and talk to the kids. There’s usually two reactions. One, they love me; two, they’re terrified. And it just depends on the age group, and how they have been brought up. Dad will be holding up a 2-3 year old, and she’ll be perfectly happy, she’ll be looking at the photographs and looking at me, and then “Whaaaaa, Dad I don’t like this anymore, put me down!” There will be utter chaos going on. Then the 8-9 year olds, that’s the reaction you get. As I say, they either love me or they hate me. By the end of the day, even the ones that hate me are usually coming back and waving at you.
DP: Well that’s similar to Chewbacca as well. I could see where Chewbacca is within you as well. At 7’3” you would be a big, imposing figure, but it sounds like you have a very big heart as well.
PM: I expect. I enjoy kids, always have. It’s wonderful to see their reactions, to see their faces light up when you look at the pictures because most kids have been brought up on Star Wars from their parents. It’s just a crazy thing, but it’s wonderful to see the kids and they have fun. It’s one of those things, they either believe it and go, “wow, you really played Chewbacca?” And I say, “Yes.” Having big hands is an ice-breaker. Because you put one hand up against their little hand and see the expression on their face. Amazing.
DP: Just in awe…
PM: Yeah, yeah it is, it’s awing.
DP: I very much admire your work with the children. I think that must be one of the fun things about Disney’s Star Wars Weekends.
PM: It is.
DP: Would you say it’s an event for the whole family, and not just the hard core Star Wars fans?
PM: No, no, no, no, because everybody knows what the story is. There is Jedi Training Academy where they’ll dress you up and you’ll practice with a light saber for the younger kids. And there’s always merchandise – some exclusive stuff that the normal fans will want.
DP: You can’t have a Disney event without the merchandise.
PM: Exactly (laughs)! You get the hard core fans, but they usually participate in the parades. If you’ve got a costume, you can march in the daily parade that Disney runs to introduce the guest stars as they come down through Disney.
DP: So then you’ll be in the parade in a car or a float?
PM: Yeah, we’ve got an open sports car running down Main Street and all over the place.
DP: Well it sounds like a lot of fun.
PM: It is a great time. It’s one of those things that we’re fortunate enough to do, and we mark down on the calendar for next year. It’s a wonderful weekend.
DP: Well, thank you very much Peter for taking the time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.
PM: Not a problem.
DP: This is David Parfitt. Signing off for the DIS Unplugged.
Category: Disney World