Kit Harington On Departing The Throne
After nine years, 30-odd duels, 67 episodes, a choreographed battle sequence to rival any in Hollywood history, one on-screen death, one on-screen resurrection, and all in all more than 100 extras slaughtered by sword or otherwise, Kit Harington is almost there. Almost finished.
When it came to his final day on a properly peopled Game of Thrones set, last July (the long-running HBO drama was about to wrap for everyone except Harington, its star) he huddled up for a final puff among the colleagues he’d smoked with for nearly a decade.
Then, ceremonially, acknowledging the end of an era, he quit smoking.
When GQ meets the British actor, in spring 2018, he has one scene of Game of Thrones left to film. A bit of green-screening, Harington says. Then he’s freeeeeeee. As much as it’s possible to be institutionalised by a hit TV show, Harington has been.
He is married to a co-star, Rose Leslie, and the couple’s wedding last year was essentially a work bash, busy with colleagues.
Now 32, Harington has the frozen-in-time grooming of the 24-year-old he was when he was first cast in Thrones – his coiled hair and scraggy beard so integral to his role as Jon Snow that the actor had little choice. (And just imagine if Daniel Radcliffe had been asked to walk around for a decade wearing the round Potter glasses. If Robert Pattinson had been obliged to keep the vampire teeth in 24 hours a day.)
Season after season on Thrones, doing his part to keep a hit a hit, Harington completed so many laps of the LDN-NY-LA promo circuit he stopped registering locales, only time zones.
When we meet in an old-fashioned LDN hotel, he notes the shields and stag heads on the walls and calls it a fitting place in which to have one of his last ever interviews about Game of Thrones. But you get the sense he’d sooner not look at another medieval trinket for a while.
“The last season of Thrones,” he says, “seemed to be designed to break us”.
Filming on eight concluding episodes of the show, due to broadcast shortly, was brutal and demanding. For those on the cast who’d been there, like Harington, since the start, the final nine months of shooting was basically a form of aversion therapy.
“Everyone was broken at the end. I don’t know if we were crying because we were sad it was ending or if we were crying because it was so tiring. We were sleep deprived. It was like it was designed to make you think, Right, I’m sick of this. I remember everyone walking around towards the end going, ‘I’ve had enough now. I love this, it’s been the best thing in my life, I’ll miss it one day – but I’m done.’”
Dressed today in a dove-grey blazer, dark T-shirt, and dark jeans, Harington is cheerful and energetic – light on his leather-booted feet.
Like a prisoner who’s almost served a decade and has just been handed a civilian suit before his release at dawn, he’s so near the end now he can taste it.
Harington has with him an attractive leather satchel (“Such an actor’s bag, this”) and he strokes it fondly, explaining that there’s a script inside.
His next job: a two-handed Sam Shepard play called True West.
Preparations for the show are about to begin, nine-to-five rehearsals in a West End theatre for the next five weeks, for which Harington will commute in from his home in north London.
He can’t wait to start, he says – though not for the earnest, actorly reasons you might expect.
Sure, Harington is keen to try his hand at live theatre again. He feels he has unfinished business there. Two years ago, right after he’d completed shooting a famous Thrones episode (featuring a muddy, bloody brawl that lasted half an hour on screen and took weeks to film), Harington showered off the fake gore and leapt straight from Westeros to the West End. He was starring in a much-publicised London production of Doctor Faustus.
“And looking back on it,” Harington admits, “my head wasn’t in the right space. My energy coming into it was quite manic, because the world of the hit TV show is quite manic. Literally two days after ‘Battle of the Bastards’ I was into Faustus. No breathing space, there I am on the billboard, about to be one of the most iconic parts in theatre history.”
It was arrogance, he says. He didn’t allow any time for the screen-to-stage adjustment. This time he’s taken a few weeks to clear his head, and been on a couple of holidays, before doing anything more than leaf through his script.
Which brings us to the real reason Harington is excited about the coming theatre job. The nine-to-five of it. The commute. He has spent the best part of a decade inside the manic make-believe world of hit TV and for all the pampering and all the opportunities, he says, “It doesn’t stop you imagining the grass is greener, it doesn’t stop you desiring the security of the nine-to-five lifestyle.”
He paints a fascinating picture: the cast on the world’s hottest TV show, all of them kitted out with crossbows and crowns and doing all the cool stuff that as kids they must’ve dreamed about... standing around on their smoke breaks, sharing fantasties about more humdrum work.
Making tea in the office kitchenette. Podcasting home during rush hour.
“I think people who don’t work in film or TV don’t realise quite how disorientating it is,” Harington says, “being away from home all the time. Coming here today [to the hotel], and seeing all the people cycling in to work, it seemed in my head a real luxury. Which must sound mad. But the process of going to work, having a day with your colleagues, coming back to your family, cooking, having stuff in the fridge... It sounds odd to say but it’s the thing I’m looking forward to most. After nine years I’ll be at home. In one place. Static.”
Young Kit, as described by the man he grew up to be, was a back-chatter, a girl-chaser, he once accumulated a neat half-century of detentions in a single year at his genteel West Midlands school.
“I didn’t respond well to authority, because my parents were never authoritarian.”
Though the larger Harington clan was old and ennobled (it had fed England with military leaders for generations) Kit’s corner of the family was less conventional.
His mother Deborah wrote poetry. His father David was an entrepeneur. Harington caught the acting bug after he was cast in a Beckett play at school, and after graduating he spent three years at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
What vestiges of the little boy that survived this got knocked out of him once and for all in his first professional job. He was cast in War Horse, a West End show that was famous for featuring a brilliantly puppeteered horse.
More than one newspaper critic made the unkind point that the human cast were continually overshadowed by Joey. Or, as Harington puts it, “The horse always got the biggest cheer”.
Back then, Harington says, “If you’d asked me I probably would have said: ‘I’m in it for the art!’ But which young actor isn’t sat there thinking of the glory of being in something that gives you notoriety?” He didn’t have long to wait. Harington auditioned for HBO aged 22.
Game of Thrones’ producers must have been confident this project would take flight and go on for years, because they had Harington read dialogue that would not be relevant until season three.
In the scene Harington read at audition, Jon Snow had to convince his warrior-girlfriend Ygritte not to embark on a tricky military campaign... while also concealing his secret plan to betray her... while also making it clear that he’d fallen in love with her.
Tense, twisted and sexy, the scene was quintessential Thrones. Harington got the gig and began filming in late-’09.
Whatever confidence his producers had in the ultimate success of the show, Harington himself was the resident on-set doommonger.
“After the first season I would say to people, ‘We definitely won’t get a second season.’ Then after the second season I went, ‘Definitely not a third, no’. Everyone was, like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me, Kit? Of course we’re gonna get a third.’”
Of course they were gonna get a third. By now several million people were watching in some way or another, officially via subscriptions to HBO, with a substantial dark audience streaming episodes pirated online.
In its early years the show was an ensemble affair, Harington was one of more than a dozen principle characters. As more and more members of the original characters died and departed, however, there was a definite narrowing of focus.
Harington’s screentime ticked up. Occasionally, other plot strands were paused outright so that whole episodes could be dedicated to him. He was starting to look like a superb leading man and once a year, in the down-time between seasonal shoots, Harington tried helming movies.
An action flick (Pompeii), a war drama (Testament of Youth), a spy thriller (MI-5). None of them ever purred the way Thrones did.
“You know there’s a job waiting. You know you’re in an intensely successful TV show. You know that it’s going to keep your profile up. So in some ways you feel like your hunger’s not quite there.”
On the show, Rose Leslie, a Scottish actor, had joined the cast in season two. Leslie played the warrior-girlfriend Ygritte, and off-screen she and Harington became a couple for real.
“A lot of people meet their other halves at work. Our work just happened to be this iconic TV show.”
Harington remembers it as a heady time, both of them feeling at “the very apex” of something, “both realising we were in a hit, both finding this other person that we fell in love with.”
Leslie’s character was killed off after a couple of seasons (arrow in the back; died in agony in her lover’s arms; again, quintessential Thrones) but fans could console themselves that the mirroring real-life relationship continued.
Harington and Leslie moved in together around 2016. They announced their engagement in The Times the following year, and married the year after that.
“You don’t realise, because you never have it thrown in your face apart from on your wedding day, but confetti’s the worst thing. Like being assaulted by a line of people. Not fun at all.”
It took ages, Harington remembers, to pick all the pieces out of his long, shaggy hair.
The actor just found out that his role in the upcoming Sam Shepard play will require a cleaner-cut look. Short hair! Once his last day of filming on Thrones is complete, Harington’s famous ’do will finally hit the salon floor. He trusts this will be a significant moment, what he calls “a reset out of Thrones mode”.
Back when they emerged, blinking, from their own long-running franchises, Daniel Radcliffe and Robert Pattinson pulled off impressive “resets” of their own. Both the Potter and the Twilight actor managed to remould their images by eschewing obvious, mainstream roles, Radcliffe doing his best work in the theatre, Pattinson in off-beat festival movies.
Having known what it was to work before a massive, ready-cooked audience, these two superstars said yes to projects that had little guarantee of an audience at all. You get the sense that Harington has something similar in mind.
“Of course I want to be in a film that gets a run at the Oscars. I’d love that. But am I seeking the red carpet-ness, and everything that goes around it? No. ’Cause I’ve done that. I’ve been to the SAG awards nine years in a row with Thrones. What’s more to experience about it?”
Harington tried his hand at producing in 2017, working with a friend to create a BBC drama about Guy Fawkes called Gunpowder.
“That gave me a taste for it. I never really knew what a producer was but I worked with some of the best there are on Thrones, and I really see now why they love what they do.”
Other than an indie film that’s ready for release next year, called The Death and Life of John F Donovan co-starring Natalie Portman, Harington has an empty diary on the other side of the Sam Shepard play.
“Could be anything next... The way I feel at the moment is that I’ve been given a great liberation that most actors don’t get. Most actors, whatever they tell you, are seeking fame. Seeking notoriety. Because that’s the goal, isn’t it? That you’re on the red carpet. That you’re at the award ceremonies. That you’re in something where people stop you in the street. And I’ve had that the last nine years. And I think there would be something a bit wrong with me if I was still seeking it.”
For a moment Harington wonders how it will affect him, walking into a bar in the coming months – crewcut, beardless, no longer Insta-recognisable.
“Look, I’m an actor, I’ve got an ego. To want to get up on stage and have people look at you, you’ve got an ego. So there’s a part of me that likes it, walking in somewhere and being recognised, and I’d be lying if I said otherwise... Will people still know who I am? How will that feel?”
Harington shrugs, grins stupidly, tickled all over again that for the first time in a decade there’s more unknown than known in his immediate future.
He loved being a part of Game of Thrones, he says, but that show? It was heavy.
“And that weight is off my shoulders. It’s done now. I can be proud of it. We’ve got eight seasons, and they can sit on a bookshelf at home ’til the end of time.”
Harington has that touching newlywed’s habit of fiddling with his wedding ring, touching it and twisting it as if he’s continually surprised to find jewellery there. Now he turns the ring, thoughtfully, and lingers a moment in that pleasant image of the bookshelf at home, set aside for the couple’s Game of Thrones DVDs.
“It dawned on me, recently,” Harington says. “And I have no idea if we will, but say me and Rose do have children. They’ll know. They’ll be able to see the genesis of their parents getting together. Which is quite a wonderful thought, really.”
“I thank the show for everything. But more than anything else, I thank it for introducing me to her.”
The final season of Games of Thrones will in April.
Kit Harington is the new face of Dolce & Gabbana's The One Grey fragrance.
Photography: Matthew Brookes
Styling: Dan May