'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?

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Mark Seliger
Kit Harington
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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."

The part that brought Harington to the attention of Weiss and fellow GoT creator David Benioff was the stage adaptation of War Horse, where he played a short-haired country boy in love with, well, a horse. At his audition, Weiss recalls thinking, "This is what Jon Snow looks like," and whispered to Benioff, "Please let this kid be good." Harington turned out to be better than good.

"It wasn't a studied thing – some kind of actor who practices brooding in the mirror – it was a capacity to say a lot without saying a lot," says Benioff.

This is a good thing, because Snow, who spends much of GoT's first four seasons literally wandering in the wilderness, isn't 10 percent as loquacious as, say, Peter Dinklage's Tyrion. He must communicate with his eyes and mane. Harington says it isn't that deep. He claims he owes his role acquisition not to smoldering intensity but to his nationality.

"If you're going to shoot a big-budget thing, hire some British actors," says Harington. "We're cheap. We've got a terrible union."

His hair belongs to all of us. Harington is the first to take the piss out of it. "It's in my contract that it must be a certain length at all times," he says, which is problematic since he's currently filming Testament of Youth, a World War I drama. "I hope they have a good wig guy or I'm dead."

Everyone jokes, but Jon Snow's hair says all that he can't say. "Kit's hair is a phenomenon of its own," says Weiss. "We did play a prank on him the first season, where we wrote him a fake scene in which his hair gets burned off permanently. He took it well. Snow's hair is supposed to be filthy. But the products you put in hair to dirty it up can end up looking like Jheri curl in Kit's hair. We need to be on constant watch to avoid that Jheri-curl shine."

Harington is in on the joke and pulls his hair back into a ponytail as we debate over lunch if he looks more like a member of the Sons of Anarchy or a gay footballer. But he doesn't think Snow's connection with millions of viewers is just follicles.

"The show started when the economy was very bad," says Harington. "People were looking for a hero trying to make his way through a dark world that they didn't understand. That's Jon Snow."

The connection is personal as well. "Snow's a black sheep," says Harington. "The thing that drives both of us is more similar than you might think – he's driven by ambition. I've always been very ambitious too. Snow is a good person who believes in what he's doing, but that's the struggle: balancing duty with ambition. That's how I feel about my life. I'm very ambitious, but how do I balance that with not fucking other people up around me?"

Over the past two seasons, Harington's Snow has found himself beyond the Wall fending off zombies and ice demons who are constantly trying to go pre­medieval on Snow's ass and those of his fellow band of misfits known as the Night's Watch. While other parts of GoT were being filmed in Northern Ireland and Morocco, Harington and crew were shooting in Iceland during the dark season. We're not talking Reykjavik, Europe's icy Vegas, where there's Björk, blond stunners behind the KFC counter and a bar owned by that guy from Gorillaz and Blur.

No, he and the GoT cast and crew were an hour away on a glacier. They could shoot for only five hours a day, so there was plenty of time for other activities such as drinking to excess and playing 20 Questions with the names of famous people taped to their foreheads back at the Shining-like lodge where they were all staying. There were also fights.

"I'd come back every day and there would be some new bickering going on between one of them," says Harington with a laugh. "They'd all start fighting. It was just cabin fever. They're all fantastic guys."

Harington has grown especially close with John Bradley, who plays his buddy Samwell, a timid fat man who proves braver than many of the men of the Night's Watch. It was Bradley whom Harington called after he broke his ankle trying to climb into his own apartment after a night of drinking ("Not one of my finer moments – I thought I let people down," says Harington) before Season Three and thought he'd ruined his career and the show.

"He takes it all very seriously," says Bradley. "He was low about letting people down and I made him laugh, and that helped for a little while, but then he was just more depressed." Bradley chuckles, not unlike how the Night's Watch guys might snicker at a comrade's misfortune. "I'm not sure he'll be calling me again in that situation."

After lunch, Harington hops back into his SUV after thanking a few fellow diners for complimenting him about his Kimmel performance. "I used to be crap at those things, but now I realize it's just another performance," he says.

Weiss says one of the strengths in Harington's portrayal of Snow is "he never lets you lose sight of the turmoil that's roiling beneath that controlled surface." Harington is a bit like that in real life. Like dozens of actors, he's found himself with a role of a lifetime; his only fear is it's going to last his entire lifetime. With at least three and a half books left to film, he could be playing Snow for another five-plus years, and there's other stuff he wants to do. "I'd like to do more theater," he says, piloting through afternoon traffic. "But in London, it's kind of an insider club, and if you go do something else they make it hard to get back in."

But Harington doesn't want to give the impression Jon Snow straitjackets him.

"If you do two or three roles that are remembered, then you are very, very, lucky," he says. "I'm so fortunate that I have Jon Snow so early in my career."

Tomorrow, he heads back to London. At the top of his to-do list is a decidedly non-Jon Snow activity.

"I'm going to buy a really big, really impractical car," Harington says with glee. "I kind of feel like it is expected of me."

This story is from the May 8th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1208: May 8, 2014
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