“I think there’s something weird going on with music at the moment,” Kit Harington muses, lowering his voice an octave, as if talking to himself and not a cadre of reporters recording his every word.
Jon Snow has just discovered Spotify.
He continues, leaning forward: “And I’m part of it. It’s great; it’s a revolution. But we’re not listening to albums anymore. We’re not listening to someone’s story from back to front. Some of my favorite albums [are by] Nick Cave. And it’s poetry; each song leads into the next song and the next song, and you have to listen to it in order. It’s great that technology is now providing us with suggestions. But it’s providing us with singular suggestions. I try to download albums as much as I can.”
It becomes clear, over the course of a roundtable interview promoting Testament of Youth at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA, that these moments of introspection are common for the 28 year old British actor.
These days, those moments rarely come in private for the Game of Thrones star, as the show nears its fifth season conclusion, coinciding with the U.S. release of his new film Testament of Youth, a tragic WWI-era romance that sees the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch play a (clean shaven!) soldier (with a haircut!) lost on the frontlines of The Great War in the sumptuous adaptation of Vera Brittain’s classic memoir.
In many ways, Kit feels like the perfect Hollywood heartthrob, as if created in a lab: the hair, the stubble, the accent, the soulful nature. Check. Check. Check and check. You also know he’s resistant to that characterization, but it’s hard not to come away swooning for the self-professed hopeless romantic. Perhaps feeling the skepticism in the room, he said it again: “I’m a hopeless romantic. No I am, and it’s to my downfall sometimes.”
Right now, it seems like he’s doing okay, one of the few moral compasses remaining on a show that takes pleasure in killing fan-favorites. His identification as Jon Snow in and outside of the industry is precisely why Harington pursued the role of Roland Leighton in Testament of Youth. “It was really important for me that I got to do this movie. Because the industry in general, I think, still sees me, which is something I never would have predicted, as an action hero, sort of very much in the Jon Snow mold. I have to find things for my own creative sanity to break out of that, and this was one of those pieces.”
Yet, as I myself thought, isn’t Jon Snow far from your traditional action hero? “But he’s more of a classic action hero in a way. He’s much more than that but in the world of Thrones that’s the role he fills. We sympathize with him. He’s a nice guy, he’s a hero. He’s got a brooding intensity, he lives very up in here,” Kit says, gesturing to his forehead. It’s clearly a place the London native lives, too.
“But Roland was not that. He was very different from that, in that he’s kind of an arrogant, cocksure young man. ‘You know, I can help you into Oxford. I’ve done the entrance exams. Why don’t you let the man tell you how this is done?’ Pat on the head. And we should feel slightly angry at him because of that. It was a delicate dance to play Roland, because he has to be arrogant, and full of himself. In real life, he was the top of the class, he was the guy at school, he was incredibly intelligent, he was picked for great things. But you have to like him at the same time. I was worried about that. I kept trying to push him more serious, and James [Kent, the film’s director] was like ‘No, you have to be light, or else people won’t like him.’ And he was right on that front, and I think we found it in the end.”
When asked what he has in common with Roland, Kit admits: “I was an arrogant sod when I was younger. I still am.” Again, sensing skeptics, he repeated his assertion. You get the sense that Kit Harington has to prove himself among skeptics often, and he’s gotten good at it.
“I related to [Roland] a lot actually. He’s one of those people who’s absolutely obsessed with heroism and writing, and the romance of art and literature. I kind of was that as well. In some ways, we were very similar, in that we had similar interests and we had a certain arrogance at a young age. In other ways, I was much more serious as a kid.”
Kit seems serious as an adult, loosening up only on a few topics, particularly when music is concerned. This should come as no surprise to fans who watched the hilarious Red Nose Day Game of Thrones musical spoof.
“When [Red Nose Day] was suggested, I said yes instantly, because it’s comic relief and it’s for a good cause and it would be wrong to say no and that went against every fiber of my being reading the script and knowing I had to sing in front of my peers. So part of me was like I really don’t want to do this. The other part of me was like I must do this, so if I have to make a fool of myself for a good cause, then I should. So I did, and it was very funny, serenading Rose [Leslie, interviewed in September]. Yeah, I enjoyed that. I did karaoke with Coldplay as my back up band, that goes down as a big ticket. I got up there and I was nervous, and then I was like, yeah this is fucking cool. You don’t get to do this very often, if ever.”
True to his romantic sensibilities, Harington gets excited when talking about the romance between his character and Vera (the luminous Alicia Vikander). “Sorry to bag on, but there’s one moment in [their courtship] you might miss with Joanna Scanlon, who plays their chaperone. There’s a brilliant moment in the art gallery, where she is looking at a painting and you can see she’s completely lost in the romance of it. This is a woman who’s probably the youngest of her family and therefore would never have had a chance to marry, and she’s caught up in this romantic idea of a painting, while the two kids are running off and actually living it. It’s a really beautiful moment that Joanna herself found [and said], ‘I’d like to be lost in it.’”
It’s easy to get lost in the sweeping, old-school romance between Kit and Alicia Vikander’s characters. To hear Kit tell it, acting opposite Vikander is just as formidable a task as taking on a White Walker. “I think having a scene with Alicia is almost a bit like doing battle in the best possible way. She’s so fierce and so determined and knows precisely, exactly what she wants in a scene. And you have to battle her to get what you want. [She’s] not ungenerous, she’s very clear. I found that quite exciting to work off. She’s fabulous.”
Kit Harington’s poetry skills, however, are not, quick to call them “abysmal.” He continues, “I actually like writing poetry, I’m just not very good at it.” Roland’s poems are integral to Testament of Youth and he’s clearly a scholar on the matter. “One of the most crushing things I found about doing this role…You know when she [Vera] says [his work is] derivative? They are. They’re like Robert Graves’ poems. He’s obviously a big fan of Robert Graves. He’s doing his impersonation of him. One of the saddest things I think is that he’s very good. He’s young. He’s 19. He’s working out his style. It’s one of the saddest things, is that he’s not quite there yet, he’s got so much room to progress as a writer and he’s killed before he gets the chance.”
He’s also killed before he gets a chance to consummate his relationship with Vera, forcing Kit Harington to grapple with a long-foreign concept: virginity. “I was the oldest out of the group of four of us, at 27, and playing a 19 year old. All through that courtship I had to keep reminding myself that I, Kit, would never have had sex to that point [and] would be very, very immature as far as that’s concerned, and this would be incredibly exciting. It was quite hard to sort of drag myself back to where handholding or tickling would send kind of a shiver up my spine.”
Considering his relative youth and that his most substantial work has come on TV, it may come as a surprise that Harington still feels at home on the stage. “I was taken to the theater a lot as a kid, maybe twice a week. I fell in love with the stage first and foremost and went to a stage school. Actually, considering that a good 15 of my years were spent going to theater, I’ve been in this industry of film and TV for maybe 6. It still feels a little alien to me at times.”
The first play he remembers attending was The Wind in the Willows at the National when he was 5 or 6 (“It was amazing”). His first performance came after seeing Waiting for Godot, taking that back to his school at 14. “We had someone come in and do Lucky’s speech absolutely fucking terribly. He forgot his lines halfway through and I kept whispering [the lines] to him.”
His first professional performance came playing Albert Narracott in War Horse, and Testament of Youth marks a return to World War One. “I was strangely enraptured by that war, like I think a lot of young people are, from the age of 15. I was taken to the war graves by my father, almost as a rite of passage. He took me and my brother on separate occasions. Not really as a father-son bonding trip, just that he felt it was important to see, not in a patriotic way, but to see the consequence of war. There’s no greater visual consequence of war than seeing the Northern French war graves where you can see the list of men on the walls and you can see the fields of graves. At that point, I took history, because in the syllabus there was a bit about the First World War, I took English literature because they were studying the war poets. I got anthology after anthology of war poems.”
You can’t fake the enthusiasm and reverence he has for the time period. “I don’t know why it struck such a chord with me, but I remember going on that trip, and another on a school trip, at 18, and you know [that’s] when your hormones are going crazy, and you just fancy women, you’re just discovering sex, and a school trip could just turn into a massive shag fest. But actually everyone was so sobered, that it really in a way took away from all that to [see] these people, these young men and women that were our young age.”
Testament of Youth is very much a love letter to classic wartime cinema, and has many influences, perhaps most strikingly to David Lean’s Brief Encounter. Like in Lean’s film, Testament of Youth features a take on the iconic train station farewell between lovers scene, a circumstance practically imprinted on our society. “I loved that scene. James [Kent] played hard house music [before the take], which was fucking hilarious. He said ‘We’re going to play some music now,’ and he was very serious about it. ‘I just want you to roll with it.’ I was expecting Wagner or something, some sort of sweeping romantic [music]. Then this hard house trance-y music came on. I think I laughed through the first take, but it was really useful, it upped the energy, it upped the urgency of that scene.”
The film was James Kent’s (The White Queen) first feature film and initially, that showed, according to Harington. “I think he was very nervous. I remember being on set the first day, and in all honesty when a director’s nervous, you’re nervous. For the first few days, I felt unsure because he was unsure. And then we found a rhythm.” Throughout the shoot, Harington “felt in very safe hands.”
When published, Testament of Youth was a landmark moment in the pacifism movement, as Vera Brittain became a prominent war protestor. Kit, always careful and considerate, well-practiced at junkets, is reticent to comment on the subject. “I don’t feel like I’m qualified to talk too much about pacifism. I don’t know enough about it. I feel like I consider myself a pacifist. I think I know I consider myself a pacifist. I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that.”
But he knows what to listen to on a grumpy Monday morning: the Talking Heads. “You know that…what’s it called?” mirroring every conversation you’ve ever had when a friend tries to recommend you a song. Kit starts humming, vocalizing random words, banging his hands on the table, creating a beat, the writers in the room serving as a think tank to figure out the title: “Once in a Lifetime.” Now remembered, Kit brings it up on his phone instantaneously and enthusiastically, joking that it’ll play for the rest of the interview. “That’ll wake you up in the morning.”
This morning, Kit Harington hopes his fans will find Testament of Youth. “I think that in passing a poster you wouldn’t recognize me in this movie. I think the hardcore fan of Thrones will go and see this. I think one of the reasons, other than just playing the part, that I was important for this piece, was that you hoped it would bring a younger audience, the Thrones audience. I hope that Thrones fans do go and see this, because I want them to see me in a different role as well, just on a personal level.”
Given that Vera Brittain is a strong character, how would she do on Game of Thrones, I asked, a purposefully ridiculous question that came close to breaching the mandated “no Game of Thrones questions” rule. Cautiously, Kit responds, “I think she’d do pretty well. She’s a hard woman and I think she’s very very…You have to be pretty fucking intelligent in the Thrones world not to get killed.”
After a momentary pause, he adds, “I don’t know how Jon Snow has gotten as far as he has.” Again, we’re skeptical: Jon Snow isn’t a dumby. “He’s not a dumby, but he’s not the cleverest.”
It’s clear that Kit Harington is no dumby himself, that unlike his once-in-a-lifetime TV character, he knows far more than nothing, a soulful, measured man yearning for creative freedom, fighting against type-casting and the stereotype of a Hollywood heartthrob. It’s an age-old problem. Indeed, in the immortal words of David Byrne, it’s the “same as it ever was.”
In the limited time I spent with Kit, I found myself rooting for him just as I root for Jon Snow, even as he inevitably tries to distance himself away from the character, hoping that whatever’s to come isn’t the same as it ever was.
Today is the LA and NY opening of the splendid World War I war romance Testament of Youth, a film expanding next week.