Most actors haven’t had the good fortune of landing a major role right out of drama school, let alone one that explodes into a global phenomenon, but that’s exactly how it happened for Kit Harington, best known as fan favorite Jon Snow on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Coming off a thrilling season five episode whose climactic action set piece found Jon Snow at its center, Harington next appears this week in Testament of Youth, alongside Alicia Vikander (Ex-Machina) and Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service).
The film is a World War I drama based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain, who overcame gender barriers and followed her brother and fiance to war as a volunteer nurse. Harington took some time to chat with RT about the film, his early interest in journalism, and how strange he thought the pilot of Game of Thrones was. RT had such a pleasant conversation with Harington that we lost count of his picks, so here are his Six Favorite Films:
Is it directed by Spielberg?
RT: No, it’s not.
Well, then I’m not interested. [laughs] No, I just think the original is one of the all-time greats, and it’s my favorite Spielberg.
I don’t know what it was. I actually think the dialogue wasn’t that great in that scene. You know, they’re two goliaths of their generation, and they’re so good because they dominate, really, in lots of ways. It’s like two positive charges going against each other. It doesn’t work. They’re amazing, but together, it didn’t work. That’s my opinion, although, it’s one of my favorite films.
Yeah, I once had dinner with him, and it was the most amazing thing. Yeah, I am, definitely. I think, as a young man, his eyes were just intense, man. He was great.
RT: Did I read correctly that you were initially interested in becoming a journalist and war correspondent?
Harington: Yeah, I was. I really respected certain British journalists, such as — actually, weirdly — Jon Snow, which is ironic, and John Simpson. I don’t know; I wanted to report on the world. And then I realized that maybe I wasn’t quite clever enough to do that. [laughs] I realized that maybe it was the performance aspect of what those guys were doing that was what I really loved. And I was doing more and more plays and drama, and I realized I wanted to be an actor.
RT: With that in mind, was acting already sort of a side hobby for you, even as you were interested in journalism, or was it something you gradually transitioned into as you figured out acting was what you really wanted to do?
Harington: I was taken to the theater a lot as a kid, so I grew up with it, and I always thought that I wanted to be something else. But I looked at a school report recently — you know, we’d have to write down what we wanted to do when we were older — and at the age of 13, I’d written quite clearly, “I want to be an actor.” So obviously all this war correspondent bulls— that I’m spouting isn’t necessarily true. Yeah, I think I respected what actors did, and I loved being the center of attention, really. Part of it was I wanted as much attention as I could possibly grab, and this was the best way of doing it.
RT: Be that as it may, assuming you did have some interest in becoming a war journalist, how was it to sort of live that out, in a sense, in Testament of Youth?
Harington: I did have an absolute fascination when I was younger, from age 15 all the way through to 20, with the First World War. I think a lot of young people do, because we’re morbidly fascinated with it as kids, and we’re also amazed that a lot of people our age went off and laid their lives down. But I also loved poetry, and I especially loved war poets when I was growing up, and when this came along, I knew this book very well, from studying it. So it ticked a lot of boxes of stuff I used to be very intrigued by and wanted to reinvestigate, I guess.
RT: So you studied the book in school?
Harington: Yeah, I’d studied it twice, and that can either turn you off a text, or it can really turn you on to one. Like, I remember I studied two things twice: I studied Testament of Youth twice, and I studied The Taming of the Shrew twice. I f—ing hate The Taming of the Shrew, but I really love Testament of Youth. I don’t know why that happened, but… When this fell through the door, I remember opening the first page and thinking, “Please be good. Please don’t f— up this part of my youth that I used to love.” And they didn’t, so I really wanted the part for that reason.
RT: From studying the text twice over, was there anything you were able to bring to the role from that? Or was it too long ago for you to recall?
Harington: It was a bit too long ago. I had to reread it, for example. I couldn’t remember a lot of it. But there was a book that was more important when doing this, a book called Letters from a Lost Generation, which was the actual recorded letters between Vera [Brittain] and Roland [Leighton]. So me and Alicia [Vikander] and also Taron [Egerton], who played Edward, we all had real insight into their actual words, thoughts, feelings, of these 19-year-old youths. That’s what really strikes when you read their letters; they’re kids. They’re falling in love for the first time, and it’s infantile and silly and full of testosterone and hormones jumping about all over the place. So that book was more significant for me in researching.
We just had a really good time making this movie. You know, I was very aware of what a rising star Alicia was becoming — and Taron, but Taron’s movie [Kingsman: The Secret Service] hadn’t quite come out then; he had just come off this amazing movie, but didn’t realize how cool it was going to be — whereas Alicia, I had worked with on Seventh Son, and I knew she’d just come off Ex Machina. I knew she was a very interesting actress, and it was another reason I really wanted to do this, because I never got to share a scene with her in Seventh Son. It was great to be able to be in this movie, sharing scenes with her. Yeah, she’s phenomenal. She has a ferocity to her performance, which is great to work opposite.
RT: Now, I have to ask you about Game of Thrones. It was your first screen role, right?
Harington: Yeah, it was my first. I shared my very first screen scene with Peter Dinklage. Talk about “into the deep end.” [laughs]
RT: When I spoke to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau a few weeks back, he noted that no one knew how big Game of Thrones was going to be. Looking back now, what is it like, knowing that your first screen role is now this huge global phenomenon?
Harington: I just remember being incredibly excited that I was in an HBO pilot. That was all that mattered. If it got picked up, that was great, but all that really mattered was that I was doing an HBO pilot, and only a year out from drama school. The magnitude of that for me at the time was huge anyway. Whether it was going to be a big global success or not, no one could tell, and in fact, it very nearly didn’t get made after the pilot. It was almost canned, and I got a phone call from my agent saying, “Look, you should be prepared for this not to go. They’re probably not going to make it.” And it was a bummer, but it wasn’t the end of the world, because I didn’t realize what it was going to be.
So then, it went, and then it was more of a gradual thing than I think people remember. The first season, people really liked, it got good reviews, but it didn’t really blast off until maybe the end of the second, beginning of the third season.
RT: Nikolaj also mentioned that when he told his friends he was doing an HBO show, they were all excited until he described that it was a fantasy series with magic and dragons. Did you experience something similar?
Harington: Yeah, kind of. When I first remember reading the pilot, it came through — and I think every young actor in the UK was going up for Jon Snow — I read the pilot, and I thought, “This is a really weird script.” I read it, and I had to read it again, just to get my head around what the f— was going on. In my head, I really didn’t know, like, “Is this genius, or is this just the worst thing ever made?” All I knew was that it was utterly unique, and you have to go up for those things that are utterly unique, even if they seem stupid. You have to take that risk, because at least it’s treading completely new ground. That’s what struck me. I look back and I love myself for that, for knowing there was something about this, because, you know, it could have been really bad. [laughs] Thankfully, my intuition was spot on this time.