Esquire (June/July 2017) Interview & Photoshoot

Kit Harington Already Died Once

He’s the face of television’s most obsessed-over show. His hair alone has more fans than most actors. But as Game of Thrones enters its second-to-last season, Harington faces a dilemma: To enter the next phase of his career, must he leave Jon Snow behind?

Kit Harington has bobbleheads on the brain. “I have to approve a new one every day,” he says. “I’m not joking. I’m asked, ‘Are you happy with how this looks?’ I’m like, ‘It’s a fucking bobblehead—what do you want me to say?’ ”

To be fair to the product designers, capturing in plastic the hirsute attributes that have become the obsession of Harington’s many millions of fans probably requires a level of attention reserved for conservators at the Louvre. And soon they’ll no longer have a live model: Harington is counting down the days until he can get a proper shave and a haircut. The time, as it happens, has nearly come: He has one last shoot day for the seventh and penultimate season of Game of Thrones, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For now, the scruffy face of one of pop culture’s defining franchises is sitting across from me in a back booth at a restaurant in New York’s East Village. He arrived smelling faintly of a freshly smoked cigarette and wearing celebrity camouflage: thick-frame glasses and a baseball cap, which is doing its meager best to contain his unruly jet-black mop.

The hair will soon disappear, along with, in 2018, the show that made Harington famous. But what will live on is the outsized, tormented spirit of Jon Snow, the frostbitten hero he’s played for the better part of a decade: the brooding bastard prince who’s lost everyone closest to him; who was stabbed to death at the end of season five and then resurrected in season six; and who will confront the possible annihilation of every living thing in season seven.

Harington understands that his likeness will be mass-produced and hawked while the suits still have the chance to make a buck. But time is running out. “Without saying whether I make it to the last season,” he says, despite widespread reports that HBO extended his contract at $1.1 million per episode through the final thirteen episodes—seven this season, six in the next—”we’ve been trying to say goodbye to the show this year.” That means saying goodbye to Jon Snow, too.

Not that he’s revealing any vulnerability. For most of our conversation, he’s affable, loose-limbed. His confident demeanor cracks just once, when he reluctantly agrees to show me some of the hundreds of on-set photos he’s taken as parting mementos. He reaches for his leather camera satchel, blanches, and leaps out of the booth; he can’t find the bag. His eyes go wide; he bends over like a folding knife and sticks his head underneath our table, then rights himself and swivels around to inspect the booth behind us. His panic isn’t just from a fear of lost memories: If leaked, the images could make their way online and lead to devastating spoilers. He finally finds the camera on a nearby chair nestled against the wall. “Oh, thank fuck!” he says, the tension in his compact frame dissolving like helium from a balloon.

“Thrones nicely bookended my twenties, but I’m thirty now,” he says in between bites of a very thirty-something meal: prosciutto, a leafy salad, jasmine tea. “Maybe I can reinvent myself and get away from an image that’s so synonymous with Thrones,” he says, his voice trailing off for a beat. “But maybe this was the role I was always meant to play and that was it.”

In retrospect, the raunchy appeal of Game of Thrones seems obvious. But when it debuted in 2011, the series was a massive blockbuster-or-bust gamble for HBO, a costly production with the scale and CGI of a Hollywood franchise. The novels making up George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, teeming with graphic sex (incest!) and spectacular violence (castration!), had been deemed too expensive, too provocative, and too complex for the screen, big or small. Unlike Twitter, the joke goes, Thrones doesn’t have a 140-character limit.

Furthermore, Martin’s series was—and remains—unfinished. He’s published five of seven planned books, the most recent coming out three months after the show began airing. (Years behind schedule, Martin has stopped making promises about when we can expect the next installment.) Thrones, then, was the rare adapted series without an ending.

The premiere alone reportedly cost between $5 million and $10 million to make; at $60 million, the first season was one of the most expensive in television history. Still, HBO’s bet did not pay off immediately. Just 2.2 million viewers watched the first episode, about half the number who tuned in to the first episode of Boardwalk Empire, the network’s other sprawling saga at the time.

Word of mouth and strong reviews helped that number grow. At the end of season five, in 2015, eight million viewers tuned in live to watch Jon Snow die. By the time he came back to life in season six, and with the introduction of HBO’s new streaming services, an average of 25.1 million in the U. S. were now watching each episode. (An HBO rep couldn’t tally total global viewership but said Thrones airs in every country where American programming isn’t banned.) Along the way, the show broke records, both venerable and otherwise: As of this writing, Thrones has won the most Emmy Awards of any fictional series, with 110 nominations and thirty-eight wins. It also remains the most pirated show in the world, peaking at 14.4 million illegal downloads for the season finale in 2015.

Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss knew that the character played by the show’s most famous cast member, Sean Bean, would be killed off at the end of the first season, and that Jon Snow—a heroic counterpoint to Thrones’ craven venality—would become the primary focus. Whoever played him would need to embody a man so noble he could just as easily be resented as adored. “Snow is a challenging part,” Martin told me. “In the books, what’s going on with Jon is internal. I can tell you what he’s thinking, but you can’t do that on TV. The actor has to sell the depths and subtleties and conflicts of his character.”

When Harington was brought in to audition for the role in 2009, he’d never been on camera. He’d landed only one professional gig of any kind, when he was twenty-one, as an equine-obsessed World War I soldier in the London production of War Horse, in 2008.

Success came easily to Harington; struggle was not in his vocabulary. When he got the part, he was enrolled at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, whose alumni include Judi Dench and Gael García Bernal. He grew up comfortably in West London and then Worcestershire, listening to people address his uncle and, more recently, his father—a businessman and now baronet—as “Sir.” (The younger Harington seems embarrassed by his family’s royal forebears, who trace back to King Charles II, though he is proud of the ancestor who, in 1596, invented the flushing toilet.) His mother, a former playwright, encouraged his love of theater; both parents supported his career choice. “It’d be far more interesting if I said, ‘I never knew my father and I was adopted by my mother,’ ” he says. “But it was a very normal upbringing.”

Following an audition that he performed with a black eye—the result of a late-night brawl at a McDonald’s after a fellow patron insulted the woman he was with—and two callbacks, Harington was offered the role of Snow. He accepted immediately. “I’ve been very fucking lucky,” he says.

For Benioff and Weiss, experience didn’t matter as much as presence. “He just had the look,” they say via email. “The brooding intensity; the physical grace; the chip-on-the-shoulder quality that we always associate with extraordinarily short people.” (Harington is five-foot-six.)

The cast and crew grew closer to one another, forming friendships that could at times resemble sibling rivalries. Harington pranked Benioff and Weiss more than once: He’d steal their phones and send texts that his friend and costar Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy) declines to quote but describes to me as “disgusting, distasteful, and hilarious.” The showrunners gave as good as they got: One time, they sent Harington pages from a fake script in which Jon Snow’s face becomes disfigured by a fire, since, they told him, “HBO was worried that his underdog, outsider-hero thing was feeling too Harry Potter.” In my correspondence with them, for every bit of praise they give their show’s star, they throw an equal amount of shade. “It takes real strength of character not to let being Kit Harington turn you into an asshole,” they write. “And in the past eight years, Kit has not taken a single step in that direction.”

Harington’s costars are just as quick to sling insults his way. Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen): “There’s a consistent drumbeat of taking the piss out of his incredible hair and startling good looks. His hair just takes over everything. My ridiculous handcrafted wig doesn’t come close to standing up to his man bun.” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister): “There’s a change in the level of female lust in the room when Kit is there, which all the males find annoying and disrespectful.” Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth): “His hair has its own trailer.” The barbs even spill into the show’s scripts: After seeing Snow’s naked corpse, one character says, “What kind of god would have a pecker that small?” Benioff and Weiss explain that line: “There has to be some downside to being Kit Harington, right? It seems only fair. He’s handsome, talented, smart, and so decent to the core that it’s impossible not to like him. Maddening. The one thing we can do is saddle his character with a tiny pecker.” Harington’s reaction to all the ribbing? “They’re all reprobates.”

At the dawn of Peak TV, niche entertainment geared toward a small but dedicated fan base was supposed to be the future, and pop phenomena on the scale of Lost were supposed to be endangered species. Thrones proved that theory wrong. One measure of its enormous success is the dizzying number of think pieces it has inspired: “How Game of Thrones Explains Brazilian Politics.” “How Game of Thrones Explains Our World.” “Is Game of Thrones a Metaphor for the Spread of Infectious Diseases?” “Game of Thrones: A Metaphor for America.”

Martin is gratified to see his books and the show used to discuss everything from global warming to Donald Trump. “I think Joffrey is now the king in America,” Martin told me, referring to Thrones’ sadistic, power-mad brat. “And he’s grown up just as petulant and irrational as he was when he was thirteen in the books.” For his part, Harington would prefer not to weigh in on American politics. “I believe in experts,” he says. He found it “annoying when Sean Penn decided to get involved in the Falklands. I was like, ‘It has nothing to do with you, Sean Penn. Fuck off.’ ” Still, he cannot help himself: “Mr. Donald Trump—I wouldn’t call him President, I’ll call him Mister,” he says. “I think this man at the head of your country is a con artist.”

As Thrones enters its seventh season, its political resonance may only grow stronger: The head of a wealthy, ostentatious family sits on the throne. Refugees have immigrated through the kingdom’s border wall. From abroad, dragon-sized chickens are coming home to roost. Former slaves are revolting against the elite. Harington’s pure-of-heart, born-again hero is rising. “Thrones can be used as a metaphor way too much, but if there’s one truth, I think, it’s that people who really desire power are the people who shouldn’t have it,” he says. “Maybe Jon’s the one person who should have it, because he’s not looking for it.”

As Jon Snow’s power on the show has grown, so too has the shadow the character casts over Harington’s future. “If I try and compete with Thrones,” he says, shaking his head, “if I’m like, ‘I need a Marvel movie, or the next big show on Amazon, or another one on HBO,’ then I’m just setting myself up for one hell of a fall.”

Precedent isn’t much of a guide. TV stars used to need Hollywood blockbusters to build a lasting career. Some made the move spectacularly (George Clooney after ER, Johnny Depp after 21 Jump Street); others, less so (Friday Night Lights fullback Taylor Kitsch hasn’t yet recovered from the one-two flop combo of John Carter and Battleship). The actor’s life has long been a capricious one, full of sleeper hits and box-office bombs, cancellations and comebacks. Today, they must also confront the tectonic shifts toward streaming and global audiences, which have shaken the very foundation of celebrity.

For a cautionary tale, Harington need look no further than his own IMDb page: In between filming seasons of Thrones, he starred in a handful of movies that played off his action-hero reputation but failed to burnish his career: 2012’s horror sequel Silent Hill: Revelation; 2014’s sword-and-sandals epic Pompeii; 2015’s forgettable spy thriller MI-5 and generic fantasy flick Seventh Son. Only in the well-reviewed World War I period romance Testament of Youth (2015), opposite Alicia Vikander, did Harington surprise. (“He brings such sensitivity to his roles,” Vikander told me. “And his eyes! . . . Do you know he writes poetry?”) His nonfilm projects allowed him to flex a different set of actorly muscles. Opposite Andy Samberg in HBO’s 2015 slapstick tennis mockumentary 7 Days in Hell, Harington proved he’s “got the timing of a natural straight man, in the manner of a Hugh Grant,” as Benioff and Weiss describe his performance, “without being a douchebag, in the manner of a Hugh Grant.” Last year, he returned to the London stage, in a contemporized production of his namesake Christopher “Kit” Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. But Harington, scratching at the scruff of his beard, admits that he has some regrets: “A few years back, I should have said, ‘I want to do stories that may not be as blockbustery but are interesting.’ ”

For his next film, Harington is putting his celebrity in the service of cinema’s brash twenty-eight-year-old Canadian enfant terrible, Xavier Dolan, as the titular character in The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, opposite Jessica Chastain and Natalie Portman. Harington describes the role as “a famous television actor who plays a heartthrobby-type person.” Donovan, who is gay, is outed just as a journalist, played by Chastain, sensationalizes his innocent correspondence with an eleven-year-old fan; as a result, the press wrongly paints him as a pedophile. Swordplay this is not.

By taking a career risk such as this—an indie movie about a controversial subject—Harington is capitalizing on his good fortune. He’s a spokesman for Infiniti; soon he’ll be the face of Dolce & Gabbana’s fragrance the One for Men. “At the moment, I don’t have too much pressure on my shoulders,” he says.

But generally, lucky streaks end. With Hollywood less predictable than ever, Harington is wise to leverage his success into passion projects. Like many stars—Clooney, Cruise, DiCaprio, Pitt—he launched his own production company, Thriker Films, largely to develop better roles for himself. He quickly sold his first pitch: He and his college pal Dan West partnered with veteran screenwriter Ronan Bennett on Gunpowder, a three-part BBC miniseries about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a Catholic conspiracy to blow up Parliament and kill the king, which is now celebrated with fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day. The release date has not yet been announced; Harington will begin shooting after he wraps the final scenes for season seven of Thrones.

In addition to serving as an executive producer, Harington will play the plot’s mastermind, Robert Catesby, who, as it turns out, is a distant ancestor. But the project’s appeal isn’t so much the bloodline (“I have no real personal feeling about this man,” Harington says. “I can’t claim that I’m doing something for my family; that would be ridiculous”) as it is the potential for provocation. “It’s about a group of disenfranchised men who’ve been pushed out from society and persecuted, and who turn to extreme acts of terrorism. It’s a story told from the terrorists’ side, to see why people might end up doing something like this and what madness drives them.”

Whatever comes next, one thing’s for sure: He’s not chasing awards. “I don’t really aim to get into that next big Oscar film,” he says. “That’s not really my route.” He and West, who used to write “Dumb and Dumber, Laurel and Hardy”–style skits at drama school, “might do a comedy next,” Harington says.

Or he might not do much of anything. “I’ll enjoy the madness quieting a bit,” he says. “I’d like a few years of relative obscurity.” It’s hard to know if he’s tempering his expectations, hedging his bets, or speaking from the heart—or perhaps all three.

After years of sharing flats around London with West, his writing partner, it’s time for them both to move on. They’re going through what Harington cheekily calls a “conscious uncoupling”: “He’s going off with his girlfriend and I’m living with my girlfriend.”

That girlfriend is Rose Leslie, who costarred on Thrones as Ygritte, the flame-haired, feral Wildling who memorably took Jon Snow’s virginity in a cave in season three. As Snow performs foreplay, she moans, “You know nothing, Jon Snow. Oh. OHHH!” The phrase, sans moaning, was recited multiple times throughout the series, but this was the one that turned it into a meme that has been GIF-ed, used as the subject of a listicle (BuzzFeed’s “26 Things Jon Snow Knows Nothing About”), and adapted into a book titled The Comprehensive Collection of Things That Jon Snow Knows. (The pages are blank.)

The sex scene—the first for both actors—was shot in Belfast in 2012. Whether that was their de facto first date, he won’t say. He has become so protective of his privacy that he won’t even confirm how long they’ve been together. He politely cuts off talk about Leslie, ” ’cause it’s as much her relationship as it is mine and I can’t speak for both of us. But yeah, we are very, very happy. So that’s what I’ll say about that.”

His phone betrays him. It rests on the table, screen down, close to his fidgety right hand. Our conversation is peppered with vibrations—texts, calls—that demand attention, and Harington gives in. Finally, apologizing for the distraction, he explains: Now that he and Leslie have decided to move in together, part of this trip is to see if New York will be their home. They’re coordinating with a real estate agent to look at apartments in Manhattan this afternoon. He vows he won’t touch his phone, but he keeps glancing at it, swearing that he needs to take just this one call or send just one more text, his goofy grin belying his attempts at stoicism. After one final call, he throws on his black wool coat, adjusts his baseball cap, and pushes open the door into the cold winds of New York’s waning winter.

When I call him shortly before this story goes to press, he’s in England, beginning the Gunpowder shoot. I ask about the house hunt; he tells me they didn’t pull the trigger on a New York apartment. “I’m the most fickle person,” he says. “Now I’m looking for a house in the English countryside; next week it will be Florida. Never take my word on what the fuck I’m doing!”

Source: Esquire

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *