Kit Harington is one of the few Game of Thrones stars who didn't die last season in a puddle of arterial spray, and the 27-year-old Brit takes his role as the noble know-nothing Jon Snow quite seriously
To similarly slake people's imaginations, when young actors like Harington sign up for a show like Game of Thrones, one common stipulation in their contract is that they are obliged to disrobe as required. Harington sees this as, in principle, perfectly fair and proper. "It's only right, if you're going to make a show where nudity and sex is a large part of it, that you be a part of that."The world of Game of Thrones—absurd, fantastical but also disturbingly familiar—is one in which treachery, debauchery, and every kind of nastiness seem to thrive. "People are constantly shocked," Kit Harington notes, almost apologetically, "that the characters who are trying to do good get killed off." Somehow the responsibility of portraying an antidote to all this despair and degradation—in the guise of the innocent-eyed, endlessly baffled but somehow nobly heroic Jon Snow—has fallen on the shoulders of this 27-year-old Brit with barely any acting experience at all before now. It is a duty he takes seriously. "I think Jon Snow is one of the last bastions of a young hero who might do a good thing," he says. "There's a huge amount riding on him to be a leader, and I want him to become that leader. I guess for me, Jon Snow is a figure of hope within the whole thing—that he'll continue to be this good person, and somehow the story will end well for everybody."
Harington is still a little surprised by the trajectory that catapulted him here after one job on the London stage. He had been conditioned to expect less: "I didn't really think I'd be a leading man in any respect whatsoever. At drama school in my third year I was resigned to the fate of being Young Male Rape Victim No. 2. That was the kind of category I was put in. I've got a very baby face underneath all of this fuzz."
In fact, it was that very baby face that helped him get this role. At the beginning of the George R.R. Martin fantasy-book cycle on which the show is based, Jon Snow and many of the related characters are aged around 14, and that's how the actors were asked to play it in the pilot. As a man in his early twenties who could pass as a teenager, Harington was perfect. But it didn't work: "They were, ‘It's way too clean-cut—we want you to grow your hair and grow your beard.' " He had never even tried to grow a beard before; he wasn't actually sure that he could. As it turned out, the result was a winning one, both in terms of fitting into the Game of Thronesuniverse and causing quite a stir in our own world. Now he's contracted to keep this look as long as he is on the show, which shoots through the second half of every year. Whatever other acting he does in the first half of the year, he has to arrive on the set in July looking like Jon Snow. "It does keep you restricted," he points out. "I can't go off and play a U.S. Marine."
An uncomfortable amount of the attention Harington has received has centered around the way he now looks, and his hair in particular. Early on in the show's success, Harington tried to deflect an interview question about what specifically he does to play his character ("I hate talking about that," he explains to me) by offering, as a dismissive quip, "I just don't wash my hair." For a while this became the most famous fact about him. Frustrating, but it is nonetheless, Harington acknowledges, "kind of true." For as long as they're shooting in one location—six weeks, maybe—Harington forsakes shampoo. "I like it to look greasy and medieval," he reasons, "so it gets very tangled." He'd rather not have "flowing locks," and he does his best. "By the end it's pretty horrible."
As we speak—perhaps a little self-conscious about this conversation—Harington gathers up his hair and ties it behind his head so that it pulls back tightly from his scalp. Instantly he becomes almost unrecognizable. He says that this is how he typically goes around. "It's not really a disguise thing," he maintains. "I just hate it in my face. It just starts pissing you off after a while."
Far greater kinds of transformation and self-exposure are, of course, expected these days of an ambitious young actor. Even if you missed the recent movie Pompeii, perhaps you saw Harington's preposterously, impossibly well-defined stomach muscles in the trailer—all, he says, completely real. "That was fucking a lot of work," he says. "I'm five feet eight, and for that guy to be able to do what he does in the film, he's got to look superhuman." He describes a routine that involves incessant exercising, first while excessively bulking up, then while starving. "It's not something I feel like I should look like every day in my normal life, or anyone should look like in their normal lives—it's not a natural state for your body to be in. But for a film sometimes you've got to do those sorts of things. For people's imaginations."
So you're happy to brandish your manhood if so commanded?
He pauses. "I wouldn't say I'd be happy about it."
But you would do it?
Another, longer pause. He looks up at me as though I'm walking him into a trap. "I'm not saying. Because I don't know. It would have to be fucking well deserved."
By happenstance he has so far evaded even the little that has been asked of him in this respect. In the show's last season, after Jon Snow has been lured into a cave by the wildling Ygritte and seduced, Harington is seen naked from behind jumping into a rock pool. Except, as it turns out, it wasn't him at all. "When it came down to it I had a broken ankle," he says, "so the only time you saw my ass, it wasn't my ass."
He broke the ankle six weeks before shooting began for season three. "Young male stupidity, really," he says. "I didn't see any point in lying about it to anyone afterward." After a night out in London, he returned home to discover that he had left his keys inside his apartment. He had climbed up to his second-floor window once before, and that gave him a false sense of drunken self-confidence. He doesn't remember exactly what happened next, only that his flatmate later found him in agony on the sidewalk and that the doctors afterward would be astonished that anyone who had broken his ankle in this way hadn't also broken his leg and his hip. He called his agents the next day to share the news—"I'm really sorry, I've done a really stupid thing"—and was nervous for a long time that he had messed up the Game of Thrones job completely. In the end, they shot around him and, to Harington's chagrin, a crew member with long black curly hair of his own that he was particularly fond of had to cut it to match Harington's and act as his stand-in.
Millions of words have been expended trying to pin down the appeal of a show like Game of Thrones. Perhaps more than necessary. "I don't think it's as complex as people make it," he says. "I think people like it because people actually respond to not being treated like idiots. It's a really complex story, and it's very hard to follow, and people love working that puzzle out. And I mean essentially why I think people like it is it's a rollicking good story with sex and violence."
Too much violence, it turns out, for some. The show lost one viewer—Harington's mother—in the sixth episode of season two during the scene where a mobs rip off a man's arm.
"It doesn't stop, either," says Harington, looking forward to the show's return this month. "It's getting worse."
That's your season-four preview?
He nods. "It's getting worse, yeah. There's some scenes this season, and there's parts of it that go even darker. The gruesome stuff—we've seen Saw, we know that, you can do that till kingdom come. People can deal with it. What I wonder is how people can deal with something going dark and dark and darker. Being unrelenting in how pessimistic things are. They really push it." Whatever hope Jon Snow might ultimately bring, it sounds as though it's still some ways off.