Shadow and Light
After a decade in a powerful spotlight, Kit Harington of Game of Thrones happily awaits the show’s final reveal. But the acclaimed HBO drama will cast a long shadow. For many, Harington will always be heroic heartthrob Jon Snow.
In the decade since Kit Harington was cast as Jon Snow in HBO's Game of Thrones, he's had to do almost everything. Everything, that is, except smile.
"I have played possibly the unfunniest character ever to have graced television," he says.
So it's fitting that as he says it, sitting in his London home, he's laughing. He's happy because he's mid-run in a Sam Shepard play, True West, where he gets to wear his hair short and shave off that beard. He's happy because his wife of nearly a year now, Rose Leslie, is upstairs rehearsing for her role in CBS All Access's The Good Fight.
And he's happy because the whole world is about to see the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones. It debuts April 14, and he can't wait.
"I think it will be strong," he says over a cup of tea, wearing a flat cap and jeans. "But you don't want to mess it up on the very last outing."
Harington is realistic about possible reactions. "I haven't watched a single series that has a following like Thrones does where everyone is satisfied with the ending," he says. "I don't think that it'll be any different with this. I think it will divide opinion."
He's read all the scripts, of course, making him one of the hundred or so people in the world who know exactly what will happen. He hasn't told anyone — "not even Rose," whom he met on the series (she played Ygritte, with whom his character had a brief, ill-fated fling).
"It's not because I don't trust people; it's because they don't want to know. I wouldn't want to spoil it for them. There's a part of me, in my head, that thinks they might have completely changed the ending anyway. Maybe they'll put in something that we never saw. I don't know. So we'll see, but no, I haven't told anyone."
Of the many things Harington has learned to do in his time on Game of Thrones — ride a horse, swing a sword, run through ice and snow under 100 pounds of sodden pelts — perhaps the most important thing he's learned is how to keep a secret.
Watch him on talk shows, read him in interviews — he's a master at talking about the show without revealing a scintilla of what's in it. "It's something I pride myself on — exciting people about it but not telling them anything is a skill that we've all in the Thrones cast developed."
You can't catch him out. It's barely worth trying.
His years in the TV industry's most intense spotlight have changed him in other ways. "It definitely makes you cagier as a person. You do get stung. You do have people trying to trick you or trip you up. That's the ugly side of it."
He's well aware that when Thrones is done it will cast a long shadow: for some, Kit Harington will always be Jon Snow, and people will be telling him he knows nothing for years to come (referring to one of Ygritte's best lines). "No, it never goes away," he says. "It's always there. I get that.
"What's nice at the moment is having to change my appearance for True West. Having stepped away from it physically, it already feels like it's a part of my past. It always felt like a domineering presence in my life. Even now that it hasn't come out yet, I still feel I'm separate from it: I'm moving on."
That doesn't mean it's been easy to say goodbye. Harington wrapped in Belfast last year on the same day as Peter Dinklage. After his final scene as Tyrion Lannister, Dinklage gave a brief speech to cast and crew… and then burst into tears. That set the tone.
"David and Dan [Benioff and Weiss, the showrunners] said a few things about each of the actors as we finished. I sort of started sobbing. I couldn't get through what I wanted to say. It felt very much like school-leavers, but from the most important school I've been to by a long way."
Benioff and Weiss (replying to questions jointly in an email message) recall their first impressions of Harington: "The moment Kit walked into [casting director] Nina Gold's office we thought, 'Oh, man, please let this kid be good.' He looked like the Jon Snow in our imaginations: dark, brooding, sensitive and very, very ugly. He opened his mouth and he was better than good. He was Jon Snow."
Game of Thrones was Harington's first screen job. After training at London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, he was cast in 2008 in the lead of the National Theatre's award-winning production of War Horse, which in turn got him a U.S. agent. But if that was an early success, what came next was the motherlode.
"I was about to go onstage on War Horse when I got the call saying, 'You got the pilot.' I was sharing a flat with my friends and we were obsessed with HBO — The Wire, The Sopranos — so to think I was going to be in something like that… I mean, I never could have predicted it would be this big, or bigger."
HBO programming president Casey Bloys notes: "For many of the cast, including Kit, this was a first or second job. Nina Gold, in my opinion, did an incredible job of seeing in these younger actors the ability to embrace the characters, but more importantly to be able to grow with them."
Harington was aware then, as he is now, that he was lucky. A few years out of drama school, most actors are looking for work. A few years later, most give up acting.
"My best mate in the world was struggling to get work," he says. "It was very important to realize early that you deserved what you got because you worked hard and you had some level of talent, but also that you were lucky."
Those who know Harington say he has retained a healthy vein of self-deprecation. Daniel West, an actor and producer, has been a friend since drama school. "He comes across as this quite earnest, anxious-looking man when you first meet him," West says, "but he was always very open and friendly — and absolutely desperate to [make fun] of himself. It's one of his enduring and most endearing qualities."
To play Jon Snow, Harington focused on his own earnest, anxious side. He made him a hero, but a hero with manifest insecurities who wears his suffering on his sleeve.
"Over the course of the series," Bloys says, "we've seen Kit embody Jon as a courageous leader, but we've also seen the character's vulnerable side. We've seen him fall in love and also suffer loss. Kit has shined as an actor every step of the way."
Benioff and Weiss observe that it's easy to underestimate Harington's performance. "Kit is so good at playing Jon that he doesn't get nearly enough credit for the mastery of his performance. Jon never gets the clever ripostes — he's not a wit, he's not loquacious, he always seems a bit uncomfortable when he's speaking in front of a group of people.
"But that discomfort is at the very core of his character, and Kit's ability to show us that discomfort is a testament to his subtlety as an actor."
The role has made Harington a huge star, but he doesn't act like one.
He says that having friends who take him down a peg or two has kept his ego in check. "I'm sure I have at times started to believe my own hype a bit. It's a very seductive kind of feeling, going into rooms in L.A. or walking onto a film set or having people look at you in the street. You need a healthy level of cynicism around you. I've got some of the most cynical friends going."
Add to that innate cynicism a schooling in English stagecraft and a love of Samuel Beckett — it was a performance of Waiting for Godot that made him want to act — and you can see why something like Game of Thrones isn't where he thought he'd end up.
"I was a bit sneery about it," he admits. "If I hadn't been in it and someone had said to me, 'You should watch this,' I'd have gone, 'Er, dragons?' That's where David and Dan and before them George [R. R. Martin]'s geniuses are. Look past the fantasy element and you've got a brilliant story. Ultimately it is aided by the fact you can do things in this that you can't in a real setting."
Ten years on — with the show having garnered 47 Emmys, including three as outstanding drama series — you'd think we'd be past such genre snobbery, but Harington (who was nominated in 2016 as outstanding supporting actor in a drama series) is not so sure.
"I still think there's snootiness about Game of Thrones. I think there's still an underlying feeling that it's a bit of fluff, it's not a serious drama. With anything that gets very successful, you can have a certain level of critical opinion saying, 'I'm better than this. I won't watch the popular thing.' It's just something you sense sometimes."
In the first few seasons, some — including, notably, guest star Ian McShane — dismissed the show as "only tits and dragons." There were, to be frank, plenty of both.
Over the years, however, the nudity has largely given way to more and more jaw-dropping set pieces. The dragons have remained, and they've grown. A lot. "The show has changed people's opinion of high fantasy, for sure," Harington says. "It's finally getting the credit it's due."
In person, Harington not only doesn't look like Jon Snow — now that the tousled locks and beard are gone — he doesn't sound like him, either. He grew up in West London before moving to Worcestershire for his teen years, but he has never lived in Yorkshire, and his voice is closer to the King's English than to a Yorkshire dialect.
"I watched a lot of Sean Bean to get the accent right," Harington says. "It was Sean [as Ned Stark in the first season] who made us all talk like Northerners. At the read-through me, Richard Madden [as Robb Stark] and Alfie [Allen, as Theon Greyjoy] were all reading in straight RP." (RP, or Received Pronunciation, is the posh English accent once known as BBC Pronunciation.)
"I heard the producers go up to Sean and say, 'Sean, can you do an RP?' He goes, 'No.' Then they turned to us and said, 'Right, you're all doing Northern accents.' Which ended up being a brilliant mistake," Harington adds, "because it differentiated the North from the South in the show."
Game of Thrones was a success from the outset, but it wasn't until season three, and the epic slaughter of the Red Wedding, that it seized hold of the global zeitgeist. Suddenly, Harington was the poster boy for the biggest show on television. At that point, he says, he was acting like Jon Snow himself, taking it all too seriously.
"I was enjoying it, but I was concerned, and I was worried, anxious. On a personal level as it went on, I stopped letting it have such an impact on me. Yes, I was in this big TV show and I was playing this character… but that's not my life."
He relaxed, he says, around the time that "Is Jon Snow dead?" became one of the most popular search terms on Google. In 2015, at the end of season five, Jon Snow's supposed brethren on the Night's Watch stabbed him to death.
Yet even a series renowned for killing its best characters couldn't kill off Jon Snow. While the show was off the air, speculation as to if and how he might be resurrected reached fever pitch. Everything about Harington — from where he was in the world to the length of his hair — became public property.
"It was probably one of the darkest periods I have been through in my life," he recalls. "I think it must have had something to do with being a walking cliffhanger: I didn't enjoy it. You want to be a lead, and then you get all the spotlight of the biggest show in the world onto you for a few months.
"It's very disorientating, and weird, and unpleasant in many ways. That's kind of where I went, 'I need to separate me from the show a bit.'"
"He's definitely relaxed a lot in the last few years," West says. "What people see in Jon Snow is someone who takes himself incredibly seriously. Kit is the opposite of that. He's the first person to laugh at himself."
"We've been forced to spend a few thousand hours in Kit's company over the past decade," Benioff and Weiss report. "Many young people who emerge from anonymity into superstardom become monsters. It is to Kit's everlasting credit that he's remained the sweet, funny, charming person he was when we first met him in Nina Gold's office. We can't imagine anyone we'd rather work with for a decade."
It's probably his sense of humor that's kept Harington sane as Thrones has grown into a television phenomenon. One of the few side projects he's made in the past decade is a 2015 HBO mockumentary called Seven Days in Hell. He sends himself up as a straight-laced Englishman who plays a tennis match that lasts an entire week with an outrageous Andre Agassi type (Andy Samberg).
"I love comedy," Harington says. "But Jon Snow is not a joke person. It's quite nice to now subvert what people see you as, and show that you can be funny. In some ways comedy works even better if you're the overly serious guy in a ridiculous comedy; then it can be even funnier."
He shares a production company called Thriker Films with Daniel West; the name is a reference to a 20-year-old joke by Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge character. In 2017, they made an HBO miniseries called Gunpowder. Harington starred as his own distant relation Robert Catesby, the instigator of the famed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
But that was still horses, swords and floppy hats. He says he'd love to do more comedy and stage work. After a decade on the world's biggest show, however, he's more than ready to do… nothing.
"At the moment, just the idea of having the rest of the year free is glorious," Harington says. "I might work, I might not. If the next Marvel superhero comes along, I'm not going to turn it down, but I don't need to be chasing anything."
And he says it all with the sort of smile that Jon Snow could never muster.
Go behind the scenes of emmy ’s cover shoot with Kit Harington. Visit TelevisionAcademy.com/cover.