The first thing you notice about Kit Harington is the hair. Or, these days, the relative absence of it. On “Game of Thrones,” the show that brought him global fame as good-hearted action hero Jon Snow, Harington’s locks furl out behind him like a military banner, providing glamorous evidence of Snow’s lack of vanity. (He’s too consumed by duty, after all, to get a haircut.) They’re the most compelling curls on the small screen since “Felicity” — which makes it all the more surprising that Harington’s now sporting short, slicked-back hair.
It’s in service of his first gig since “Thrones” wrapped shooting, as thwarted screenwriter Austin in Sam Shepard’s American theater standard “True West,” which played London’s West End from Dec. 4 to Feb. 23. But to Harington, the cut is less professional obligation than opportunity to begin the process of leaving behind Jon Snow. “For any other job I’ve had up until now, there’s a contractual element over me that I have to return to ‘Thrones’ with a similar look,” he says over lunch in his home in London before an evening performance. “I can’t tell you the amount of conversations I’ve had with agents about whether my hair’s going to grow back in time.”
It was a style, and an identity, that could feel at times constricting. Shooting what quickly came to be the biggest show in the world throughout his 20s left him at the precipice of 30 (he’s 32 now) wondering what was left to accomplish. “A huge part of my 20s are me with that look,” he says. “My wedding pictures [with former co-star and now-wife Rose Leslie] are me with that look. For a long time toward the end of ‘Thrones,’ I felt like I wanted to be a new person but I was stuck in this shape.” On the last day of shooting, Harington says, “I took off the costume, and it felt like my skin was being peeled away. I was very emotional. It felt like someone was shedding me of something.”
“Thrones” is the most Emmy-winning prime-time series and HBO’s most watched show ever, one whose international broadcasts have made Jon Snow an icon of rectitude the world over. And it’s made Harington — whose on-screen relationship with Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen was last season’s surprise twist — into among the most speculated-about stars on Earth, as fans wait for the show’s April 14 return to see if Jon will die (again), claim the crown, or something in between.
All of which has presented Harington with two sorts of pressure in his career: first, learning to live up to the expectations of fans as the moral center of “Thrones,” and then, defying those expectations as he sets a path toward becoming something more complicated than simply an icon. “I’m not really driven by wanting to play heroes right now,” he says. “Every script I read at the moment is about characters who are deeply flawed and in some ways antiheroes. And that doesn’t necessarily go along with my casting, so it’s going to take a bit of work to fight against that.” But give Harington this: After years of filming the battle between good and evil, he knows how to put up a fight.
Before he can be fully post-“Thrones,” Harington has to get through the airing of the eighth season — six final episodes that promise to set the internet ablaze on Sunday nights this spring. “They went balls out, I think is the term,” Harington says of Season 8. “They could have easily set the same budget as they did for Season 7, but they went bigger.” Harington believes that a reason for the expanded scope of an already grand show was to “establish that HBO can do this” before a future spinoff. Outgoing network CEO Richard Plepler tells Variety that the planned prequel series, set to star Naomi Watts, is “something special. We weren’t just trying to re-engineer the genes of what ‘Game of Thrones’ was, but we had a fresh, exciting perspective that didn’t let the franchise go away.”
Plepler’s decision to greenlight “Thrones” helped cement HBO’s place as TV’s most artistically ambitious outlet; as it concludes, he has announced his departure from the network, which has been reorganized under an umbrella led by Robert Greenblatt after its purchase by AT&T. The show is now, among its other distinctions, a bridge between HBO’s past and whatever will be its future. Programming president Casey Bloys, who’s remaining at the network, says via email that “Thrones” is both a valuable part of HBO’s catalog — “I’m sure that when George R.R. Martin has the final two books published, there will be a surge of interest from fans wanting to see it again” — and grist for that spinoff, which he says will begin shooting this summer. “We hope ‘Game of Thrones’ will have a long life at HBO,” he adds.
With the power to define the prestige-network pecking order and the balance-sheet impact to necessitate a speedy comeback, “Thrones” is the most scrutinized show in the world. And Harington is among those applying the scrutiny. He watches each new episode alone, and he also has gone back and referenced past scenes in order to situate his performance along Jon’s long emotional arc. What he has found hasn’t always pleased him. “Looking back at the entirety of ‘Thrones,’ there’ll be 70% of the scenes that I’ll just never be happy with. I’ve come to terms with that.” The upcoming eighth season represented something of a breakthrough. “I know who this is now, and I’m at peace with who this is. I just got a feeling that it’s the most satisfied I will be with my work as Jon Snow.”
Jon isn’t easy to play: He stands for powerful and resonant ideas — loyalty, doggedness, grit — but he doesn’t, moment to moment, get many fun lines. Duty and bombast don’t tend to coexist. Harington notes that his and Clarke’s roles are uniquely difficult on a show whose supporting players steal scenes: “We’re the two young female and male leads, and there’s going to be more pressure on those parts. They’re not your Joffreys; they’re not so showy. And there was a sort of feeling in me, in the middle of when the show was going on: ‘I’d love some sort of character thing.'”
Reading reviews — which Harington swore off around Season 3, at the moment the show leveled up from garden-variety hit to mega-smash — hardly helped. He looks at press on everything else he does, and his face grows intense, his mustache furrowing, as he recalls the early coverage of “Thrones.” “My memory is always ‘the boring Jon Snow.’ And that got to me after a while, because I was like, ‘I love him. He’s mine and I love playing him.’ Some of those words that were said about it stuck in my craw about him being less entertaining, less showy.”
As the series’ political chaos grew more urgent, though, Jon’s gravity came to feel like what the show had been about all along. He was Emmy-nominated for his sixth-season performance that included “Battle of the Bastards,” a technically complex episode in which Jon tried to rescue members of his family and faced down a nemesis as ruthless as Jon is soulfully earnest. “I now look back and I go, well, I was a f–ing integral part of that whole thing,” Harington says. “Jon was, and I am, and I’m proud of it. It took me a long time to not think, I’m the worst thing in this.”
Criticism on the scale that “Game of Thrones” elicits would be jarring for any actor. But this was Harington’s first screen role; the show debuted when he was 24, after he had attended drama school in London and originated the lead role in the West End production of “War Horse.”
“Kit and I are counterparts in terms of experience,” Clarke says. “We are pretty much the same age, and our characters have had parallel journeys, and we as actors have had parallel journeys. We’ve both done stupid action movies we regret and fabulous things we’re proud of, and we’ve always come back to ‘Thrones.’ And he’s the person I’d ask, ‘How are you handling this? Are you all right?’ We were in sync, even if we were filming on opposite sides of the world.”
Eventually, the two came together to shoot Jon and Daenerys’ slow-burn Season 7 romance: “The first scene we had together,” Clarke admits, “we both just started laughing. Why are you looking at me this strange way and saying these strange lines? You’re my friend!” (She recalls that Harington would pretend to retch during their scenes: “Oh, my God, mate. You’re not making this any easier!”)
Harington has, like Clarke and those who play his on-screen siblings, come into adulthood in front of a huge audience. And that’s been attended by growing pains. When “Thrones” began, he was a part of an ensemble that included not only veterans like Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey but also a large complement of green performers. The ensemble effect helped make the experience less intimidating at first — but later, when Jon moved to the center of the “Thrones” narrative, anxieties that had been deferred leaped forward. “My darkest period was when the show seemed to become so much about Jon, when he died and came back,” Harington says. “I really didn’t like the focus of the whole show coming onto Jon — even though it was invalidating my problem about being the weak link because things were about Jon.”
Harington had, by the time of Jon’s death and resurrection a year later, been involved with “Thrones” for five years; fan interactions were nothing new. But the spotlight was intense. “When you become the cliffhanger of a TV show, and a TV show probably at the height of its power, the focus on you is f–ing terrifying,” he says. While Harington’s character had putatively been killed in the fifth-season finale, the actor was spotted in Belfast, the show’s base of operations, with that familiar, burdensome set of curls. (Heavy is the head that wears them.) “You get people shouting at you on the street, ‘Are you dead?’ At the same time you have to have this appearance. All of your neuroses — and I’m as neurotic as any actor — get heightened with that level of focus.”
The mania was so pitched that network head Plepler recalls then-President Obama asking him at a state dinner if Jon was really dead. (“Mr. President, even your security clearance isn’t high enough to give you the answer to that,” Plepler replied.)
Though all the attention reflected concern for the character Harington had built, it also made for something more than a professional challenge. “It wasn’t a very good time in my life,” he says. “I felt I had to feel that I was the most fortunate person in the world, when actually, I felt very vulnerable. I had a shaky time in my life around there — like I think a lot of people do in their 20s. That was a time when I started therapy, and started talking to people. I had felt very unsafe, and I wasn’t talking to anyone. I had to feel very grateful for what I have, but I felt incredibly concerned about whether I could even f–ing act.”
The experience, after five years of gradually increasing fame, changed Harington’s outlook. “It’s like when you’re at a party, and the party’s getting better and better. Then you reach this point of the party where you’re like, it’s peaked. I don’t know what I could find more from this. You realize, well, there isn’t more. This is it. And the ‘more’ that you can find is actually in the work rather than the enjoyment surrounding it.”
The public adulation that comes with playing Jon Snow reaches its high point one Saturday night at the stage door outside the Vaudeville Theatre, where Harington and co-star Johnny Flynn have been portraying the rivalrous brothers in “True West.” A tidy queue has formed, waiting for the stars to emerge. Eventually, passersby notice the line and the posters on the theater’s exterior walls. “It’s the guy from the show, isn’t it?” one observer remarks. “The guy who plays Snow!” By the time Harington emerges, the crowd has swelled to about 70, an impressive post-performance turnout for a theater with only 690 seats. The crowd has spilled off the sidewalk, stopping a lane of traffic. Fans who may not even have known Harington was in a play at all run across the street and push one another to get closer — drawn, perhaps, by the fleeting glimpses of the actor that are available between iPhone flashes.
Harington describes himself as “awkward and English. I’m not going to come out and go” — here he feigns an American accent a bit like the one he does in “True West” — “‘Hey guys, how you doing!’ I am just a bloke and not one who is particularly good at a lot of attention.” The production locations of “Thrones,” often far from civilization and always well-secured, are as removed from this sort of pandemonium as it gets, and it can feel as though Harington’s entrées into the world of celebrity leave him yearning to get back to set. John Bradley, who as Samwell Tarly shares scenes as part of the Night’s Watch with Harington, recalls that “we were 50 minutes outside of Reykjavik, on top of a glacier in the middle of nowhere. We could be uncomfortable together, and we could talk about the cold, and we could make each other laugh — the fact that we had each other there made everything so much easier.”
On set, Bradley says, “he knows the responsibility he has and he knows that it’s up to him whether we get the shot on camera or not — everybody’s working as hard as they can, but if he’s not working, the shot will be wasted. He knows the responsibility at all times, and he knows how to keep a very happy crew. He sets that example of hard work that affects absolutely everybody on that set.”
Which is not to say that Harington’s work could have gone on forever. The last season of “Thrones” was an arduous nine-month shoot “in extreme weather and just in heavy f–ing costumes,” Harington says. “I was there the whole time this year. I felt a bit like people were coming in and out, and Jon Snow was just f–ing there the whole time.
“You have these in-jokes, and these relationships that thrive for eight years. That’s a long time for those jokes to be going, and they never felt old or tired. In the last season, I was like, these are getting tired now. And I think they got tired because we could see the end coming. That’s a way of emotionally detaching from something: relationships very slightly starting to strain, just on the edges, just frayed. Now everyone loves each other again.”
But for all the stress of the shoot, saying goodbye is never easy. Harington watched his colleague Dinklage wrap production, “and I saw him just break down,” the actor says. The next day, when Harington himself wrapped, he recalls “a huge heave of emotion. I’m just blubbing.” Harington also cried at the table read of the final season, noting that “the end of Jon’s journey, whatever that may be … I was satisfied with how his story ended.”
“Thrones” also obviated the need to make decisions solely for repute or money. “It checked that box in bucketloads. If I was seeking fame, which honestly speaking, like any young actor, I was — I’ve done that! If my career from here on in meant I didn’t get a huge amount of fame, didn’t go to the awards ceremonies, I’d have done it.”
While Harington’s early film roles, he admits, were largely chosen on the basis of paydays — “I was sort of rabbit in the headlights going, ‘Ooh, that looks big and impressive'” — he’s now looking for roles further afield. His most recent big-screen job was under director Xavier Dolan in “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” which played the Toronto International Film Festival last year; other roles for young male actors under top-flight auteurs are in relatively short supply nowadays, and Harington isn’t first on a casting director’s list. “Right now,” he says, “I would expect Aaron Taylor-Johnson to be sent a more interesting, darker, more characterful role than I would. I have to get myself to a point where I can prove to people that I can do those. I have to graft myself out of being a heroic TV actor, and that’s a challenge, and that’s fine.”
Harington admires the careers of fellow Brits Benedict Cumberbatch and Ben Whishaw, who pair spiky personal work with franchise fare. “I don’t want to be Bruce Willis and be an action hero,” he says, “but I think those days are sort of done anyway.” More common now, he says, is a balancing act. “The sort of ideal for an actor seems to be nowadays, ‘Oh, I’ll do this Marvel franchise, and I’ll have this time after to do my fun stuff.’ I’ve had that with ‘Thrones,’ and I wouldn’t mind continuing that.”
One thing he won’t do is a series as demanding as “Thrones”: “It would have to be extraordinarily special, and it would have to shoot here [in London],” he says. “I think there’s enough to dip my hand in without doing a six-year marathon.” Something, perhaps, like former “Thrones” co-star Richard Madden’s splashy six-episode series “Bodyguard”? “That’d be perfect. ‘Bodyguard 2,’ maybe.”
For now, though, there’s still a season’s worth of attention on Jon to live through and a performance of “True West” to get to. Harington’s curiosity about what people think of him, his tendency to review his performances and read his critics, has been sated somewhat. “I placed a lot of importance on the reviews of this,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of work now, and the reviews were always mentioning something else. When it was ‘War Horse,’ it was the horse. In this, they were positive, and they were positive about me and Johnny. I realized reading them that I don’t need to read reviews now. I think I just needed to read something nice about me somewhere.”
His intense countenance lightens a bit. “I felt it got beyond ‘He’s that guy from “Game of Thrones.”‘ I’m not just the guy from TV. I’m an actor in my own right, and that’s a pretty good feeling.”
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