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'Game of Thrones': How Kit Harington Became Jon Snow

How did a descendant of the British aristocracy transform into America's most unlikely action hero?

Kit Harington
Mark Seliger
May 8, 2014 12:00 AM ET

Kit Harington is nearing the top of the mountain, and he's made some decisions. He is hiking, unrecognized, up Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles and is clad a little differently from another man-hero he encountered on the trail recently.

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"I was running along, listening to the Drive soundtrack, and the guy from the movie ran the other way," says Harington. "It was quite funny. What's his name?"

Turns out Ryan Gosling was dressed in workout clothes. Not Harington; he is all monochrome: black jeans, black T-shirt and black mane, not the perfect gear for an 80-degree February day. Harington spacing on Gosling's name isn't an anomaly – the young Brit had never even heard of the Emmys until three years ago. He is puffing slightly, the result of a few weeks of R & R in L.A. and a cessation of the three-hour-a-day workouts he was doing for his roles in the recent dud Pompeii and as the hirsute loner Jon Snow on Game of Thrones.

For the past four seasons, Harington has played the brooding bastard son of a dead lord who has been exiled to the frozen North with nothing more than his hair, sword and pioneering oral-pleasure skills as survival tools. It's a long way from Westeros, GoT's mythical land, to London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, from where Harington graduated. (Some guy named Laurence Olivier attended nearly a century ago.) A half-decade after leaving the school, Harington is a buff, smallish heartthrob. Much of his journey has been brilliant, in the Britspeak vernacular, but there have been some challenges. Harington is still recovering from the burnout of last year's workload. There was a scary moment on the Pompeii set in Toronto when he was temporarily paralyzed.

"I was in my trailer, and I felt absolutely fine, but they called me to set, I got up, and my legs just went from underneath me, and I fucking couldn't stand," says Harington, hydrating with cheese crackers. We're halfway up the hill. "Every time I got up, the same thing happened. I just stayed in bed for 48 hours and then I was at work again. But it's weird when that happens."

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We reach the top of the trail, but there's little peace: Two helicopters circle above, traffic drones below and three dogs on leashes bark menacingly at other hikers. But that's why Harington likes it, partially because it mirrors his own current life, a mishmash of photo shoots, talk-show appearances and self-analysis.

"I love coming up here because, to me, a Londoner, this is what Los Angeles sounds like," he says. "The noise, the sun, the complete fucking chaos. I like it."

He starts back down the hill. And the decision he's made on the mountaintop? It's a simple one.

"I told my agent, 'No more swords, no more horses,'" he says. "You can get stuck in things." He bounds down the trail. Toward the bottom, he turns back and jokes, "And maybe I can cut my fucking hair."

One of the hallmarks that a British actor brings to his public persona is an adept sense of self-deprecation – see Daniel Craig and Damian Lewis. Kit Harington is already an old master at the age of 27. It's a day after he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and participated in a running Kimmel gag where stars record readings of hate tweets.

"They're pretty funny," says Harington later in the afternoon, slipping into a mock-dramatic accent. "'Harington looks like a wet puppy 100 percent of the time.'" He clears his throat. "'Kit Harington always looks as if he doesn't know where he is.'" He takes a gulp of his white-wine spritzer and smiles with non-Westeros white teeth.

"Fair enough."

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The other traditional British trait Harington has is an elusive relationship between his public and private life. I mention that we're going to be having lunch at the Chateau Marmont, the Chipotle of Hollywood celeb lunch spots, and Harington dryly drops into conversation "It's nice to go skinny-dipping in their pool," but declines to elaborate. Later, he talks about things he'd tell a younger version of himself: "Don't do dickish things." When I ask for more, he grudgingly adds, "Saying things you shouldn't say, crashing a car."

What?

"It was a Ford Mustang. Totaled it. I did it very easy, and I did it very sober. And you guys have really great insurance here."

No more details were forthcoming, and Harington also declined to address whether he has a girlfriend, especially rumors that he dated Game of Thrones co-star Rose Leslie. It's by design.

"I don't do Twitter because I don't want to talk about myself more than I already have to," says Harington. He looks down at a gooey sandwich he wouldn't have dared eaten if he was still in training. "I don't want people thinking they know me instead of the character. Steve McQueen has loads of stories about him – who knows what's true? But it's great for people to fictionalize rather than know the truth."

The interest in Harington's past extends through the generations. He comes from a posh British family. Legend has it that the Haringtons are direct descendants of King Charles II, and his uncle is a baronet. (His mom was a playwright who started taking Kit and his brother to the theater when they were kids.) His family is also said to have invented the first flushing toilet for Queen Elizabeth I. While Harington was happy to mug about the royal loo on Kimmel, he dismisses the rest of it as crap.

"There's an unhealthy obsession in America with royalty and the class system," says Harington, rolling his eyes. "'Oh, my God, you're the son of a duke!' I'm not an anti-royalist, but who gives a shit?"

His disdain for the old ways carries over to one of GoT's competitors in the prestige-soap-opera sweepstakes. "I really disagree with Downton Abbey on lots of fucking levels," says Harington, before admitting he hasn't seen many episodes. "It celebrates the class system, and its kind of overall message seems to be, 'Wasn't it good when everybody knew their place within society?' Why should we hark back to those times? It was bullshit. We got out of that, and thank the fuck we did."

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Luckily, Game of Thrones is consumed by a less prissy, more bloodletting take on the class struggle; whatever class you are in, there's a good chance you're going to have a pike rammed down your gullet or up your ass. The body count long ago outstripped The Sopranos'. But it wasn't always that way. The original pilot was helmed by indie-film director Tom McCarthy and shot with a cleanshaven Harington resembling one of the scouts from Moonrise Kingdom. The whole thing looked like a shiny network attempt to re-create Medieval Times. It was mostly scrapped.

"There were many reasons we re-shot the pilot," says Game of Thrones creator D.B. Weiss. "A good number of Kit's re-shoots were simply down to the fact that when he came back to us after the hiatus, he no longer looked 13. We dirtied him up."

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