When actor Kit Harington first strolled into public awareness as the brooding loner Jon Snow on HBO's "Game of Thrones," many people (especially in America) wondered where the heck this guy came from. The answer is simply: from arguably the most highly regarded British stage production in recent memory. Harington originated the part of Albert in the London production of "War Horse," and he did so while still enrolled in drama school, just shy of his 21st birthday. And not long after he left the production after several years, he was cast as the bastard son of the late Lord Eddard Stark and steward in the Night's Watch.
Harrington's only other film role before the recently opened POMPEII was a leading part in the horror offering SILENT HILL: REVELATION (which coincidentally also starred Sean Bean, who played his fictional father, Lord Stark). But his slate will likely become more full, and his downtime from "Game of Thrones" becomes increasingly busy. He's also shot the long-delayed fantasy-adventure story SEVENTH SON (now set for a February 2015 release), co-starring Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore, and is gearing up to shoot back-to-back films--the modern-day MI5 actioner SPOOKS: THE GREATER GOOD and the WWI-set TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, both of which we discuss (he also does a voice in the HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON sequel, scheduled for a June release).
Late last week, I got a chance to chat with Harington via phone just as he was wrapping his U.S. press tour for POMPEII and heading to Europe for more. And while I wasn't a fan of the film, there's no chance I'm missing the opportunity to talk with this up-and-coming actor, who plays one of the most interesting character on "Game of Thrones" and had just as much to do with bringing those puppet horses to life as the puppeteers in "War Horse." The deep flaws of POMPEII are certainly not Harington's; he does an admirable job looking like he's in love and like he's terrified of the giant volcano exploding right next to him. And as I mentioned in my review, his scenes with a fellow gladiator (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) are my favorite in the movie. Please enjoy my interview with the humble and charming Kit Harington. And believe it or not, we get into some heavy spoiler territory about the fate of some characters here, so be warned…
Kit Harington: Hello.
Capone: Kit, how are you?
KH: I’m good thanks, Steve. How are you?
Capone: Good. Where are you right now?
KH: I’m in a car on the way to various interviews, and it’s my last day in L.A., and I go back to London tomorrow.
Capone: I would imagine, especially looking at some of the scenes toward the end of the film, there were a fair amount of green screen environments while you were shooting. So what your reaction o seeing that volcano erupt the first time on a actual screen with an audience.
KH: Yeah, when I saw it done…obviously we worked a lot with the CGI once the volcano’s gone off. Once I saw it, I was pretty blown away, actually. You worry with these movies because it’s so out of your hands what they’re going to do with the final edit with the effects and whether it’s going to work, and I thought the 3D worked brilliantly and the CGI elements were pretty impressive. It’s not that often on movie screens that you see volcanos explode, so I was happy to see it.
Capone: Were you able to see it with a crowd when you first saw it on a big screen?
KH: Yeah, I’ve seen it twice. I saw it once when it wasn’t finished, and then second time I saw it recently--which is probably the last time I’ll see the film because I only watch these things once--and I was with an audience and, yeah, there was a good reaction to it.
Capone: This is your first sort of truly leading role in a film, and I can’t even imagine how physically taxing a performance this must be. Tell me just about the pressures of being at the center of something so massive, and then also getting a full workout every day on the set.
KH: Yeah, there’s no greater incentive to looking quite lean and fit than knowing that millions of people are going to watch the movie, so that was a good incentive. But also, it’s a big action movie. I’m playing a gladiator, I wanted to look how we perceive the gladiators to look, and I think we did look like that. So, it was intense. On my card here was basically all the fight training we were doing, which was taking up a lot of the prep time for the film. On top of that, there was a prep to get into that kind of shape where I had to do a whole sequence of bulking up and shredding down. It’s a very, very strict diet, essentially. It’s 70 percent diet, and then 30 percent going to the gym every day and maintaining this physique, but I enjoyed it. I threw myself into it, and once you get into it it becomes quite addictive.
Capone: In addition to the bulking up part of it, you also had a great deal of weapons training and fight training, because you not only have to be able to do it, but you have to make it look like it’s second nature and instinctual. Was that a tough thing?
KH: It was. It’s the type of fighting in this film that is showmanship, really. It’s for entertainment. So we wanted to make them look quite elaborate and big and impressive and basically it’s, again, a process. You take a long time just learning moves, and I was already okay with a sword, but this is a different type of sword fighting. And you put it all together, and for the long fights, it takes a couple of weeks to learn, and then you get very eloquent with it, almost too much so. So once you know all the moves, it’s like a dance routine; you then have to go back right to the start when you were trying to remember which part to place your sword in, because it needs to look not staged. It needs to look as if you’re actually going for where they’ve left a place open. So it’s a dialogue and it’s a dance routine, really. But I always loved it from an acting sense, because they’re very in the moment and naturally so.
Capone: This is a PG-13 film, so there are certain things in terms of the violence that you can and can’t do. But I’m wondering, is there a bloodier version of this film that we might see at some point, or is this pretty much how it was shot?
KH: This is how it’s shot. There were some things not used, but you have to…it’s a weird thing how they rate films. If you show blood here, then it becomes a higher rated film. There is a fine line, and it will always be sort of getting in the way on set. You’ve got producers and the director, and the director wants one thing, and the producers have another thing because they have to sell the movie. This is not, for example, "Game of Thrones" where it was just gruesome and bloody and very real. This is a way of displaying violence that is sort of almost balletic, so the blood isn’t so necessary.
Capone: We all know, as we're watching this movie, how it’s going to end, more or less. So were there conversations with [director] Paul [W.S.] Anderson about making sure that the various storylines that are leading up to this inevitable ending are strong enough to keep people engaged before that big moment? Were there adjustments made for a bit more character development or anything like that, so that this film is not just a waiting game?
KH: It was always going to be about the explosion. It always was, and Paul made no bones about that. But I think what we wanted to do was make people care about the characters, and throwing a love story in there and fleshing out the characters a bit gives it that little bit extra. I was always concerned about the ending to be honest--there were two different endings. The ending we went for was the ending I wanted; I always felt that it would be unrealistic if it was any other way. I did have quite a bit of input into the film, and we could change lines here and there. I generally wanted to cut as many lines as I could, because I felt my character wouldn’t really speak much; he was more of a man of action. So, there was a lot more dialogue there before I got to it.
Capone: I don't want to ruin the ending for anybody, but was the second ending what I think it might have been?
KH: [laughs] Uh, yeah, pretty much.
Capone: You’re right, that would have been ridiculous.
KH: Yeah. People did escape Pompeii. It’s recorded that they did, but it wouldn’t have been right by our story, I don't think.
Capone: The big amphitheater fight towards the end, where you’re chained up, that looked incredible, but it also tapped into something that reminded me of when we used to get my friends together and just beat the crap out of each other. Does playing these type of roles tap into that feeling for you?
KH: I think it does. I loved doing this movie because I love really going for it on the fighting side. Pretending to be a gladiator is one of those things we pretend to be. I think it does tap into an age-old blood sport thing, does’t it? We don’t have blood sports anymore, thank god, but we still have as humans the desire to go and see them. So seeing a big gruesome battle like that taps into what a lot of us as audience members still want.
Capone: I know people have been asking you a lot about the action scenes and love story. I’m dying to know what it was like working with Kiefer Sutherland, because he is playing a villain in a superhero movie here. You said you’re trying to cut lines, and you’re clearly going for a more understated things, but he is definitely not. Tell me about working with him and what you learn from him.
KH: [laughs] No, he's not. I learned a lot from him. He knows how to command a set, and you listen to him and I like that. And I almost played my character a bit as we went along as an antithesis to him, really. He was very big, and I really liked his big choices, and I though I’d balance that out.
Capone: It was funny that they made your character someone who is good with horses. It had to cross your mind that anyone who’s aware of you acting history in "War Horse" might have found that coincidental. Was that a deliberate choice, or was that a complete coincidence?
KH: It came with the movie. It was a coincidence. I found myself doing my horse whispering thing again, which I hadn’t done in a while. It’s strange the boxes people put you in as far as what you can or should do. I always get linked with horses, but I enjoy it. I like it, and I like that there’s something very true to history about our relationship with horses, and I think sometimes we forget that in this modern era.
Capone: How many days did you have to act having ash dumped on you constantly?
KH: Oh, god. Once that volcano blew, which came about halfway after we started filming. It was just astonishing the amount of ash that go blown at me.
Capone: What was it made of?
KH: Well, they said it was like potato starch. They said it was absolutely safe, but then all of them were wearing these masks. I’d be going, “You sure it’s safe? Why are you wearing masks?” And they’d sort of say, “No, it’s fine. Don’t worry.” And then they’d put their masks back on. So, I don't know. I hope there was nothing carcinogenic in there.
Capone: Just potato flakes with asbestos. Nothing to worry about. Was it easy to get off your skin? It seems like if you got wet, it would just sink into your skin.
KH: It would come off, and as you washed, and all the water would be black. And it never truly got off. I turned a very strange shade of grey when they started dumping the ash. I knew it would happen, and there are scenes in the film where I'm slightly grey. So, I was walking around Toronto with a very unhealthy pallor.
Capone: We actually met a few years ago the very first time you were at Comic-Con for "Game of Thrones." And it was so much fun to talk to you and a couple of other cast members, because you were just getting that first reaction from the public at that event, and it occurred to me even then that you didn't have any scenes with any of the cast members there. You've now spent the first two, two-and-a-half seasons being basically in your own movie on the show. But at the end of the last season, you get to interact with a few more people then you have. Is that nice just to feel like part of the gang for a little while?
KH: It’s nice to be back after that long journey; it was nice to come back. There’s a speech near the top [of Season 4] that he makes that is all about having been away and how it all feels like a dream, and I think that’s how it felt for me, really. I had come back after two years away filming different bits to the original set that we were on in season one, and it felt very interesting. So much has changed in me, and so much has changed in him over that time. Yeah, it’s bizarre. As for that first Comic-Con, that was amazing. We knew the show was doing quite well, but we got up there… Now it’s impossible not to take it for granted, but you do. Naturally, you try not to, but you do. But back then, it was kind of crazy. It was, "Oh god, this is really big."
Capone: The constant screaming alone is probably enough to give you heart palpitations.
KH: [laughs] That was fun. That was the first time I got out of a car and had flash bulbs going off. So yeah, that was a new experience, definitely.
Capone: So, the forth season is done shooting, correct?
KH: Yeah, just finished at the end of last year in November.
Capone: So what have you sort of got lined up film wise in this break?
KH: I’m stepping away from things of an historical nature a little bit. Well, I’m doing the first World War drama, which isn’t action at all. It’s a very actor-driven interesting piece about two poets in the first World War. And then also I'm doing a bit of action with a modern spy thriller, and they're both shot in the UK, so I get to go and work from home, which will be nice. They’re both British films, which I was keen to do after doing a lot of American stuff for the last few years. And then there’s lots of stuff done prior to this film that are coming out, like SEVENTH SON and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2--I did a voice there. Season four of "Thrones" is obviously coming out. So, I’m definitely busy, which is good.
Capone: So, we’ll finally get to see SEVENTH SON? I thought it was never actually going to happen. I think it's been pushed to February of next year, is that right?
KH: Yeah, I know. It’ll be weird going back and watching that one after so long.
Capone: What are the two British films called that you just mentioned?
KH: The first World War drama is TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, based on a book about Vera Brittain, the poet [played by Alicia Vikander]. And then the second film is a called SPOOKS, which is based on a British TV series. It’s slightly MI5 in nature. It’s a BOURNE IDENTITY-type movie, but not really. It’s interesting and very well written. And it's modern set, so I actually get to do something from this century.
Capone: I would get that you'd have to shave your famous facial hair now to be clean shaven in the World War I film.
KH: I do. I shave.
Capone: People might not recognize you.
KH: [laughed] I shaved today, but that’s good they don’t. I think it is. I’ve been in a period place where men were beardy and long haired, and that makes me quite easy to cast in those movies. And now I want to show a bit more of myself when I’m not in that place. But the hair has to stay for "Thrones," so there are ways around it. But for the first World War film, I’m short haired, no beard to get back to my baby face.
Capone: As much as you’ve been pushed into genre work, partly because of what you’re better known for, is that something you’re drawn to as well?
KH: I think so, yeah. I wasn’t initially drawn to it, and then with "Thrones," and I enjoyed "Thrones" so much, you want to do stuff you enjoy, and I enjoyed making POMPEII, but I’m done with it now, really. I’ve got "Thrones" there to go back to every year, but I want to experiment with other stuff. So that was where I was at--I was thinking "Well, let’s try something new now," and these two films give me the opportunity to do that.
Capone: Are there any other areas in the film world that you’re looking at in the spirit of switching things up?
KH: Yeah, I want to push myself a bit. I’ve been playing quite similar, slightly introverted characters, and now it’s time to make a few choices and play a few different things. I’m not so drawn to comedy just yet; I’m still in a dark place, but that might be down the line somewhere. For me, in your 20s, if you’re lucky enough to be acting and lucky enough to have the security of "Thrones" behind you, I’m looking to experiment through these years and see what I like. Then when "Thrones" is over in my 30s, and I’m actually still working, I can have all of those different elements to me to work in interesting stuff that I really like and be a good actor in my 30s. So, I’m looking long term, basically.
Capone: You think right now you’re too focused on the brooding characters to try out comedy? That might actually work to your advantage, because people won't expect it.
KH: Yeah, I could, but it’d have to be the right piece. The two I’m dong are very different from what I’ve done before. They’re solid dramas and not comedies, but they’re very different characters.
Capone: When you’ve played a character for so many years already, and there are so many more still to come, presumably, what keeps you from getting bored?
KH: It’s not boring at all. It couldn’t be further from it. Getting to develop the same character over the years is something that’s really interesting about TV at the moment, especially for us actors. And it’s about growing up with him and changing him and adapting him. Yeah, I love it. It’s fantastic. And I enjoy that development and that character. [Harington gets word at his end that he has to leave.] I’m afraid I'm getting the sign that I to have to go, Steve, because I’ve got more of these bloody things to do. I wish I could talk to you more.
Capone: Not a problem. Best of luck with this, and looking forward to the new "Thrones" season.