How all those 'Star Wars' cameos wound up in surprise box-office hit 'Wonder'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay are mother and son in the box-office hit Wonder. (Photo: Dale Robinette/Lionsgate)

It doesn’t open for another two weeks, but Star Wars: The Last Jedi is already eyeing galactic-size box-office returns, with opening weekend numbers expected to top $200 million according to some early estimates. You can credit a terrific marketing campaign, a widely adored (and wildly successful) preceding episode, and the world’s general love for all things Star Wars as the reasons for Jedi‘s anticipated success. But Wonder director Stephen Chbosky jokingly suggests to Yahoo Entertainment that The Last Jedi will also benefit from the Wonder bump. Since its Nov. 17 release, the adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s beloved young-adult novel has become one of the fall season’s stealth success stories, opening to a healthy $27 million and remaining on track to cross the $100 million line by the time Rian Johnson’s space saga arrives.

Star Wars plays a small but significant role in Wonder; not only is it the singular obsession of the film’s main character, Auggie Pullman (played by Jacob Tremblay — a noted Padawan in his own right), but Chbosky also wrangled surprise cameo appearances by two residents of George Lucas‘s far, far away galaxy: a certain Wookiee co-pilot and a sinister Sith-turned-emperor, who appear in fantasy sequences imagined by Auggie, who initially prefers the company of fictional characters because real people struggle to adjust to his facial deformities caused by a rare medical condition. “I will point out, very proudly, that on Dec. 15 there will be two Chewbacca movies in theaters — that has never happened!” Chbosky says, laughing. “I really hope that being part of Wonder might help the box office of The Last Jedi. They’re really struggling over there.” In this revealing conversation, Chbosky explains how these crowd-pleasing cameos came about and the one thing that Chewbacca can never do on  or off camera.

Director Stephen Chbosky on the set of Wonder. (Photo: Dale Robinette/Lionsgate)

Yahoo Entertainment: Auggie’s love of Star Wars is mentioned in the book, but these cameos are specific to the movie. How did that idea come about?
Chbosky: Steve Conrad, one of my co-writers, added the magical realism elements to his draft of the script. We all thought the Star Wars character added a touch of whimsy and a sense of humor to the story. We shot those scenes not knowing 100 percent whether they were actually going to work in the movie, but we found they were utterly delightful, and it was a great way of showing what’s going on inside an internal kid like Auggie. And actually, Julia Roberts suggested, “You know, it would be great if you put Chewbacca in the graduation scene [at the end of the movie]!” We only had Chewbacca for one day, so we had to build the back of the auditorium and fake that shot, but it worked great! People seemed really delighted by it.

Was there any concern about securing the rights to the characters when you added them into the script? Did you have any backup plan in mind?
No, it was Star Wars or nothing. I couldn’t even imagine what else it would be. I think we were all concerned [about getting the rights], but we had David Hoberman as a producer, and David has a long relationship with Disney. [Hoberman has produced such Disney films as Bringing Down the House and The Muppets through his Mandeville Films and Television company.] He also knows [Lucasfilm president] Kathleen Kennedy, so he made a phone call and told Kathleen this was a special film, and would she consider it? We sent her the script and the book, and then she agreed, because of the power of R.J. Palacio’s novel and her relationship with Dave. That’s my understanding of it.

A lightsaber battle in Wonder. (Photo: Lionsgate)

Lucasfilm does have a licensing department, but it sounds like it certainly helped to have an inside man, so to speak.
It did, absolutely. I know that because they wanted it to be right, so ILM [Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm’s VFX division] did some work to make sure that Chewbacca looked great for their standards. And I was excited, as a filmmaker, to work with them. If you look at the film, there’s Star Wars stuff everywhere, not just those two character likenesses. If you look at Auggie’s room, half of it is Star Wars. That was very, very classy of them.

Were there any other characters you wanted to use beyond Palpatine and Chewbacca?
No, it limited itself to those characters. I could tell you something funny like, “Harrison Ford said no,” but the truth is it was always those moments. If you notice other than that little Chewbacca callback at the end, once Auggie has a friend — after the friend montage with Jack and Auggie — his Star Wars touchstones go away for the rest of the movie. He doesn’t need them anymore and is able to have his real-life friends. We kind of broke our own rules with the ending, but it was so fun that we had to do it.

Is the Chewbacca suit an official Lucasfilm costume, or did your own costume department build it?
We didn’t build it ourselves. The man that came and played him, Michael Alan Healy, is an officially licensed person with Lucasfilm. And it’s interesting — they have certain rules. Like he never got dressed in front of the kids. Just like a baseball mascot, he never took off the Chewbacca head in front of anyone. He could only do it in private. We were shooting in Vancouver during the summer, and because the suit was so hot, we’d have to take breaks. We’d always have to get him far enough away from the kids so that he could cool down and not reveal the trick in front of the kids. It made a lot of sense, because the kids were so excited to be near Chewbacca. He posted for pictures and went above and beyond. He was a great, great sport that one day we had him. And as a director, it was surreal to go up to him and say, “Mr. Chewbacca, sir, maybe this time you could fist-bump Auggie.” [Laughs]

Chewbacca in The Empire Strikes Back. (Photo: Mary Evans/Lucasfilm/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

Were there any other rules that Lucasfilm insisted on in terms of how you could depict Chewbacca?
Other than “Chewbacca is always Chewbacca in front of the kids,” absolutely not. They were incredibly accommodating and got into the spirit of it. And I was behind that rule; if it didn’t exist, I would have insisted on it myself. He’s such a beloved character, and you can’t mess with that. It’s not just a guy in a mask. He is Chewbacca. I remember shooting that last shot of the movie; it was Day 4, and also Daveed Diggs’s last day with us, and Chewbacca’s first scene with us. You gotta understand: Daveed [who plays Auggie’s teacher, Mr. Browne] had just finished Hamilton on Friday, and he flew to Vancouver on Sunday and was filming Monday morning. That Thursday afternoon, he only had a half-day because he had to go off and shoot another project. So his last shot was clapping for Auggie and then having Chewbacca there. As he left the set, he was so dazed! He was like, “I just did a scene with Chewbacca, and now I gotta get on a plane. What happened?” It was so funny.

Is that Michael Alan Healey’s voice we hear in the film, or did Peter Mayhew dub in the grunts and growls?
Oh, that was the sound team. The actor was very good at it, but it had to be right. It was the sanctioned Lucasfilm sound. We did it our ourselves, and they gave their thumbs-up.

Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. (Photo: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Lucasfilm/Everett Collection)

How did you cast the actor who plays Sidious/Palpatine, J. Douglas Stewart?
He was a local actor from Vancouver. We auditioned a lot of people, and our makeup person, Naomi Bakstad, did the design. He looks very convincing! The decision to give him a line of dialogue, “Ouch,” was mine. [Sidious appears after one of Auggie’s classmates makes fun of him by suggesting his favorite Star Wars character would be Darth Sidious.] He understands how Auggie feels, and understands Auggie’s pain. I wrote that little joke to establish more of the rules. Because that’s the first Star Wars moment, and I thought it was important to give him a line so the audience would know that we didn’t go crazy — this is Auggie’s subconscious talking back to him.

Jacob Tremblay is a big Star Wars fan in real life. Were those his favorite scenes to film?
Forget about it — it was his favorite day on set. For all the kids and honestly me too. There was something about having Chewbacca there that made this production feel blessed, because it’s not every day that you get all these crew members — some in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond — and children all loving the same character the same way. Chewbacca erases generation gaps because we all love him. I remembered the kid in my heart, and everybody else felt it too. There wasn’t a cynic in the bunch on Chewbacca day.

What is Jacob’s favorite Star Wars movie?
I don’t know, actually! I know that he’s obsessed with it; we talked about Star Wars at our first meeting for quite a long time. One funny little thing is that Auggie’s Darth Vader head is mine from childhood. I picked it up from my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary in Pittsburgh and then brought it with me when I flew to Vancouver. So that’s my little tribute to the franchise.

What’s your favorite film then? I imagine The Empire Strikes Back.
My personal favorite is A New Hope. It was the first one, and as a kid, it replaced The Wizard of Oz as my favorite movie at the time. I love Empire, but for me it will always be A New Hope.

You mentioned that Dec. 15 will be the first time two movies with Chewbacca in them will be in theaters at the same time. Are you proud to be linked to Rian Johnson that way?
You know, he and I knew each other, because Looper came out the same year as The Perks of Being a Wallflower [Chbosky’s acclaimed adaption of his 1999 novel], and we were both nominated for Writers Guild awards. He’s a great guy, and when I heard he was picked for The Last Jedi, I thought, “That’s going to be a great movie.” We’re really just hoping to help The Last Jedi along on its quest for complete global domination. [Laughs]

Wonder is playing in theaters now. Watch the trailer:

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