Within the harsh world of HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, you either live by the sword or you die by it. In the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, court is a deadly pit of vipers, with each of the titular game’s players scheming and manipulating their way to higher realms of power and influence.
Not everyone is engaged in these sordid power plays. Bastard-born Jon Snow is a child of the North, raised in the ice and cold of Winterfell before being packed off to the Night’s Watch, a brotherhood of men sworn to protect the 700-foot ancient Wall and the realm from the threats that lay beyond it.
One of the show’s most pivotal characters, Jon Snow is played with emotional grit and a keening angst by 25-year-old actor Christopher “Kit” Harington. Prior to Game of Thrones, Harington starred in the original West End production of War Horse; he’ll next be seen opposite Ben Barnes, Jeff Bridges (“This is The Dude from The Big Lebowski,” said Harington, excitedly), and Julianne Moore in The Seventh Son, an adaptation of Joseph Delaney’s novel The Spook’s Apprentice. (Harington was recently forced to drop out of David Dobkin’s $120 million-plus Arthur & Lancelot, in which he would have costarred as Arthur, due to scheduling issues.)
The self-described “private person” is about to become an even bigger star with his arc in Season 2 of the HBO drama, and with that comes a sharp spotlight on his time off-screen. “I’ve got an idea of my personal life,” said Harington. “I have a wild streak, but I like to keep that very much for my friends. I love going out. I love partying. Last night, I was in a club, and it being on the Web the next day is suddenly something I’m aware of. I can’t be the Kit in public that I might have been once.”
In the second season of Game of Thrones, Jon Snow makes a monumental leap from boyhood to adulthood, encountering the mysteries of the world at large and of his own heart. While Harington was coy about whether there is romance in the cards for Jon, he did acknowledge that watching the show with his parents makes for an interesting experience. “I can’t watch this with my mum,” he said. “My granny watches it. She loves it. She’s a saucy old minx, my grandma. She’s less prudish about it than anyone, really.”
Over lunch at a West Hollywood hideaway, The Daily Beast caught up with Harington to discuss this most recent episode, “The Night Lands.” Harington, dressed simply in a black shirt and dark jeans, arrived early, a packet of Parliaments and an iPhone set down on the table, as he ordered a salad. What follows are excerpts from that conversation, in which Harington discusses playing the show’s “emo” hero, encountering the White Walkers, and what’s coming up for Jon Snow this season.
How do you view Jon Snow’s journey in Season 2?
Harington: There’s this fantastical element that’s rising north of the Wall. That’s where he’s going. In Season 2, he’s fully focused on his task. He’s got a sense of determination, which he didn’t have in Season 1. I almost got tired of him in Season 1 being this mixed-up guy and moping around, getting upset every episode. It’s “oh, woe is me.” In this season, it’s not “woe is me.” There’s something bigger that he has to do. He starts that trajectory of becoming the leader that we want him to be.
He might be the angstiest character in fantasy.
Yeah. He’s very emo.
Do you see Jon as the product of his upbringing and the qualities that Ned Stark (Sean Bean) instilled in him?
What we see in Jon is that he wants to be his father and he wants to be his uncle [Benjen]. He wants this sense of nobility and loyalty and honor that the Starks carry. But there’s a side of his parentage, his mother, that we don’t know. I think that’s his fiery side: the side of him that acts without thinking. That’s what we see in Craster’s Keep. He speaks up when he shouldn’t speak up. Then he acts in a way that is not appropriate, a little bit diplomatically, in that situation. He gets put down for it: “Don’t try and test me. I’m your commander.”
He’s passionate and he’s ambitious and he wants to prove himself. Those get in the way of what actually is right and what he actually should be doing. He’s not fully matured. As it goes on, I want to mature him in a way that he learns his lessons from these mistakes he made.
In the books, he’s even younger, an adolescent male trying to become and surpass his father, trying to find his place in the world. That seems to be Jon’s journey, the road to adulthood.
I’m growing faster than Jon is in the books. I’m getting to be a man rather than a teenager. So, I had to adapt how he is in the books to how I want him to be as he grows. I think going back to Season 2 and the difference within him is that he’s a man now. I saw him in Season 1 as a teenager. I had him in my head as about 18. But even though we carry straight on from the first season, there’s a shift in him, which happens at the end when you see him riding out beyond the Wall where he becomes that man. I think his father would be proud of him, seeing that.
“He’s not throwing fake swords around anymore; he’s throwing real ones.”
Have you theorized at all about his parentage? Fans love to speculate that Jon is actually the son of Ned’s sister Lyanna and Rhaegar Targaryen.
I’ve had that theory as well. It’s one that I have to keep shoving out of my head because it will, I think subconsciously, change the way I play him and change how I see him. I don’t know who his mother is. George hasn’t told me. I don’t know his parentage. It’s all still in George’s head. So, it’s one of those things that I have to be careful with. I would passionately love that to be the case. I really would. I think that’s a fantastic twist. But we don’t know. I think there are clues all the way through in Jon himself and maybe that is a clue.
After his father dies, as far as he’s concerned, unless his mother turns up out of the blue and says “I’m your mom,” which is very unlikely, there is no one in this world who knows who his mother is. Possibly Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), but she would never tell him. That’s a big thing for a person. It’s part of his maturing. He has to accept being a bastard, and he’s an orphan now as well.
Jon is an 18-year-old sent off to war. It changes you in a very dramatic, powerful way.
In Season 2, Jon has to do things that will fundamentally change an adult human being. He’s not throwing fake swords around anymore; he’s throwing real ones. At the end of the second episode when he sees that White Walker, something happens there where seeing that changes his outlook again on what he has to do and what this world means and what he feels his responsibilities are. He gets darker in a less emo way. It’s less about his mom and “who am I?” It’s more “I have a mission here.”
How far ahead in the books have you read?
I’ve read four of the five books. I haven’t read the latest and I’m not going to for a while. I thought I got too far ahead of myself. I love source material, so if it’s there I’ll read it and know as much about the character that’s written as possible. I got to [A Feast for Crows] and I want to see what happens, but he’s in a very different place than he is in [the show so far]. I had to reel it back.
How surprised are you about the audience reaction to the show?
I knew HBO would put out a good show. I was very excited by the story anyway because I thought it was so original. But I didn’t expect the viewership. I think someone told me that that’s the third– most watched HBO series ever, after The Sopranos and True Blood. That’s incredible for me thinking about that and being a part of The Wire and Deadwood and Rome and all of those great HBO series. Having watched all of those, it’s really, really amazing.
I notice more women coming up and saying how much they love the show. It’s not just for the people who like that genre. People are picking up the books who’ve never read fantasy before because they’ve seen this show. That’s amazing. I think it’s because it’s character-based drama. It’s like any other HBO show; it just happens to be set in a medieval world. That’s the thing that sets it apart from lots of fantasy.
You spent part of Season 2 shooting on a glacier in Iceland. Does on-location shooting help instill a sense of reality?
Absolutely. The whole experience of shooting in Iceland was amazing for me. It was all very intensive. I’m not a method actor, but there is something to be said for staying in a place in which Jon is for four weeks. Iceland is exactly like the place where Jon finds himself, beyond the Wall. That landscape is so alien and so perfect for what we wanted to capture.
Played by a guy called Simon Armstrong, who—not to blow smoke up his ass, because I never want to do that—is amazing.
How do those relationships evolve in Season 2?
John Bradley and I had a discussion about Jon and Samwell. It was a sad discussion because in Episode 2 you see them fall out for the first time. John turned to me on the set and said, “I think this is the moment where Samwell can never forgive Jon.” He’s always thought of Jon as this noble man who will stand up for everyone and do the right thing and rescue people who are in danger. Jon refuses to do that with Gilly (Hannah Murray), the wildling girl, and for the right reasons. He is having to make those grown-up leadership choices now and that’s one of the things he’s maturing into. But that’s a big rift in their friendship. They maybe never recover from that totally.
The Halfhand is really interesting for Jon, because he’s constantly finding himself around these father figures, whether it’s Benjen (Joseph Mawle), whether it’s Commander Mormont (James Cosmo), or now Halfhand. He’s always surrounded by an older male influence who he seems to piss off in some way or try and impress. They’re like, ‘No, you’re getting it wrong again.’ That’s an interesting dynamic that we’ll find with Jon and Halfhand: it’s another powerful male influence in his life.
Ygritte, I can’t say too much about. She’s a wildling and it’s just exciting for Jon to finally meet a woman. It was really odd playing off a female in front of the camera, having spent so much time around young men in the series.
Season 2 finds Jon and the Night’s Watch out of Castle Black, going beyond the Wall and throwing you into the midst of real danger.
It’s great to just keep moving in this series. You keep finding yourself in new places. With Downton Abbey, you’re always stuck in one stately home. But in this, people are never stationary. They’re always exploring new lands. We’re always going somewhere where we haven’t been. That’s great for an actor. You get to keep moving the character on through these different locations.
You recently did a fashion spread in Men’s Journal. How would you describe your sense of style?
I wear quite fitted clothing. I don’t like wearing baggy stuff. I think it’s possibly because of my “short man syndrome.” Wearing baggy clothes makes me look shorter. I just don’t know anything about fashion. I know what I like wearing. I’m always accused that I wear too much black. I love wearing black. Weirdly, like Jon Snow.
I enjoy the red-carpet events as well. They’re hugely knackering, tiring things, but there’s something thrilling about getting really dolled up and people shouting at you and cameras going off. It’s sort of dreamlike and addictive. It’s still very surreal to me. I don’t really want to get too used to it. I don’t want to take all this for granted. There are lots of actors out there who are hugely, hugely talented and haven’t got the breaks I’ve had. So, it’s important not to take those situations for granted or have a sense that I deserve this.
How supportive was your family when you said you were going to be a professional actor?
My dad looked like someone shot him in the gut, but he was hugely supportive. My parents never pushed me or my brother into anything. We’re a very close-knit family. Their idea of parenting was if we showed interest in something they would provide us with everything we needed to follow that interest. I used to like taking photographs, so they’d buy me a camera, and they’d send me to photography courses. I always liked writing, so my mum would give me books on writing. When it came to acting it was, OK, you like doing this as an extracurricular activity, let’s send you to London. You can do National Youth Theater, do these drama courses. They shot themselves in the foot with that one because I ended up following that. Luckily, it’s paid off so far.
Is there someone whose career you would look to emulate?
There are a few young British actors out there who were just above me, as I was going through the drama-school process. People like Andrew Garfield, Ben Whishaw, Eddie Redmayne. That group of actors I’ve always looked up to and the choices that they’ve made and what they’ve done once they got those roles. As far as film and TV work goes, growing up I was always very, very keen on Edward Norton’s work, Leonardo DiCaprio’s work. Those are two big influences for me.
Do you feel more comfortable in Jon’s skin now, having done the second season?
I’m never entirely happy, as I don’t think any actors are. But I’ve gotten over my initial worry about him. How I felt about myself bled into that first season and affected who Jon was. He was going through a tough time and worried about things and very angsty about his life and what he should and shouldn’t do. Whether that affected me as a person or whether I affected Jon, who knows? In Season 2, with his determination, he’s definitely changed. I’m happier with who he is as a person and what I’ve done with him the second season. I’m raring to go to the third season, because that season we develop it even further. He starts getting things right.
Which begs the question, are you, Kit Harington, happier or more confident now?
I’ve got more confidence. I definitely have. I’m very confident with some things in life, and I worry too much about others and put myself down. I put myself down a lot in my early stages of acting in War Horse, but it’s also not about being self-deprecating, putting yourself down and picking apart what you’ve done. I think it’s important to just put it behind you and move on.
That of course is very English, that self-deprecating streak.
Oh, God, yeah. I’m about as English as they come. I was brought up so very English by my parents. Not on purpose, just because that’s who they are and who I am. It is very much a part of me, that kind of British cynicism and pessimism, but it’s one I’m fighting to get rid of constantly.
Jon’s very distinctive on television because of his beard. As soon as you’re done filming are you ready to kind of shave that thing off?
No, I kept it on for ages. I have grown used to this look. I like it. I’m constantly getting told by my agent and people to shave. I do, but it makes me look a lot younger. I quite like the maturity it brings. I have to keep my long hair, contractually for HBO. So, I have to kind of play with it and stuff.
Well, Emilia Clarke gets to wear a wig. You could wear a wig.
I hate wigs. I absolutely hate wigs. I’m a bit like Peter Dinklage. Peter Dinklage said to David and Dan when he was offered the part—they were desperately trying to get him in—“I’ll do it as long as I don’t have to wear a wig or a beard. Put me in a wig or a beard, I’m not doing it.” That’s how I feel. I’m not doing it. I hate wigs. I hate them.