You know him as Jon Snow, the noble but sullen young warrior of Game of Thrones. But there’s much more to English ingendude, Kit Harington. When we sat down with him in New York to discuss his new film, Testament of Youth, Harington was thoughtful and enthusiastic, dropping casually f-bombs and chuckling more than his morose Stark ever has.
Based on Vera Brittain’s harrowing memoir, Testament of Youth centers on the young Englishwoman as she battled first to go to college, then to join the war effort as World War I consumed her family, friends, and everything of the world she knew. Harington co-stars opposite Alicia Vikander, as Vera’s charming beau and relentless supporter, Roland Leighton.
Along the way of exploring what makes this period piece unique, we also learned how feminism informs Harington’s view of his work and himself, what he made of Game of Thrones‘ “Hardhome,” why he gets weepy on airplanes, his current cultural obsession, and what it’s like playing “a bit of a douche.”
Testament of Youth offers a side of you Game of Thrones fans may not expect. Roland is cheerful. He’s kind of smooth with the ladies; he’s confident. Was that something that was important to you in finding a role?
Actually, I think I came to this playing him way to serious at the start. Like I was kind of predicting the war a bit too much. And [director] James [Kent] was very right in making this light.
He was like, “You don’t know what’s about to happen. You’re 19 years old. Like younger, younger, younger. Happier.” And that was a very good note from a director. Because I did my research on him, and [Roland] a very serious person. He was very obsessed with heroism and it takes himself very seriously in the letters you read, or her depiction of him in the book. But it was important for the story that he be light and kind of young and boyish. And that was fun to play. On Game of Thrones I’m a very different person than that. A very more troubled person.
Yeah, Jon’s a lot broodier.
To that end, was it at all a challenge to put yourself in the mindset of World War I? Like, the idea of that level of conflict was just unknowable then.
They were a completely different breed, these young men. They were first and foremost patriotic. He was obsessed with fighting for his country, with finding some meaning of life by going to war. We’re far more cynical now because of this war. I’m a more cynical man than Roland was. So to transport myself to that kind of mindset was uncomfortable in some ways. I have to remember that he was indoctrinated at school. He was romantic, first and foremost. He believed in war as romance, which is odd when you think about it.
Watching the movie, it was jarring to me to see them be not exactly naïve as much as genuinely enthusiastic. Because of the way they thought of war versus the way we realize war now.
Yeah, I think that war was so horrific. But they believed that Germany–as it was then–had to be thwarted. That’s what they believed. And it’s impossible to take myself back into that mindset. But it’s important that we pose those questions in this movie.
What do you think Testament of Youth says today?
I think it’s unique in telling a woman’s story throughout that war, in being a war movie pretty much purely from the homefront and through a woman’s eyes. And that’s important on two levels because at that time there were three Oxford colleges that were solely women’s and there were 33 colleges in Oxford. Vera was a feminist. She was an early [standard] bearer for women’s rights. And yet even now it’s rare that you have a woman playing the out-and-out lead in a film, which is what our film does. It’s important this is a feminist film.
Was that something that was important to you, making a feminist film?
Yes. Yes, it was. I thought that this was a unique film because of that. You always want to look for movies that are different. And this is different because of that.
Frankly, I wanted to work with Alicia as well. I think she’s an incredible actor.
You two had met before.
Yeah, we’d had dinner a few times because we worked on Seventh Son together. But like I was a teeny part in the beginning of that movie and she was the female lead.
But you were great in that, and you got to work with The Dude (Jeff Bridges).
(In hushed tone) I still haven’t seen it! (Chuckles.)
Well, I have seen it, and you were great in it.
Thank you. I got to work with The Dude. Yeah, that was cool.
So, what do you think Roland saw in Vera? Because as you said she was a woman in many ways ahead of her time.
I think he was frankly almost Freudian about it. Like he fancies her because she reminds him of his mother. His mother was a formidable woman, the main figure of the household, and the–frankly–the breadwinner. She brought the money into the house (with her writing.) But I think he was so cocksure about it. He goes to her and says, (affecting what I can only describe as a dude-bro tone) “I really like the fact that you want to get into Oxford. I can help you.” It’s like, you fucking patronizing dick! And she teaches him in that way, you know what I mean?
And that he’s so shocked when she gives him notes on his poetry.
Yeah, “Derivative.” He’s like, “The fuck? Derivative? Who’s this girl telling me (my poems) are derivative?!” But they were. She was right. His poems were derivative of that generation of poetry. And again, poetry was very different after the first world war. Much more cynical, much darker. He was like Robert Graves, you know? He was all about romanticism, beauty and nature and heroism. He was derivative. Who knows who he could have been. He could have been a great writer had he not gotten killed.
Well the poem you read in the film about the flowers and the war damage around it is very moving.
It’s a beautiful poem. But it’s raw. It’s like untapped talent. He could have been so much [more.] Doing press, I’ve been really rude about his poems. I think they’re really good, but it frustrated me. I feel like if he lived past 19 he could have become a great writer.
Yeah, he himself was in a raw form. I think that comes across in the film to where Vera struggles with her writing. Whether it is a selfish endeavor for her, realizing it’s how she can speak not just for herself but for those she lost in the war as well.
It must have been incredibly difficult for her to write this book. Like to come through a depression and to think that anything meant anything when she’d lost that many people, and then to record it must have been really hard.
Watching the film, I was not very familiar with her story. And so I cried repeatedly because there are so many spots where she is dealing with so much. Did you cry when you watched Testament of Youth?
No, I was too sort of–I was picking [my performance] apart still.
Are you not a person who cries at movies?
I am on planes. Put me on a plane, and I’ll cry at anything. I’ll cry at The Avengers for fuck’s sake. It’s something about altitude makes me weepy.
So what’s the weirdest movie you ever cried to on a plane?
I don’t know. I remember crying to Sideways once. That was hilarious. That wasn’t even on a plane. It’s like the weirdest movie to cry to.
But I get that. Paul Giamatti just gets to me. So, You’ve expressed frustration about being pigeonholed as a “hunk.” Was that a concern in Testament of Youth, taking on a role where Roland is such a dream-boy for Vera?
No. No. It’s never a concern. I think I dislike the word “hunk.” I’ve been asked about it a lot. It came up at a kind of HFPA conference. Someone said, “Do you like being referred to as a hunk?” And I went, “No, I don’t like being referred to as a hunk.” It’s a fucking ridiculous thing to be referred to as. It’s like calling a girl a “babe.” It’s frankly offensive.
But I never saw Roland as a hunk. I saw him as a very romantic young man who is just really interesting to play.
Well, I’m glad for that. But I mean, he is pretty dreamy.
He’s pretty. I like that. He is pretty dreamy as well. He was like properly clever. If you look at his school records, he was top of class at like everything. No wonder he was fucking arrogant.
But he’s not douchey though, he’s confident in a way where you think, ‘Well of course you are!’
Yeah, but he is douchey at times during the film. Like when he’s patronizing to her about helping her get into Oxford, he’s a bit of a douche.
We do see the growth of that. I was very struck by how modern this movie feel. And it doesn’t feel disingenuously so, like it doesn’t feel like the filmmakers are trying to force a “feminist agenda” on the film. It’s just that’s what this story was.
It just is. Yeah. And there was a point when we were all sort of (affects a more posh English accent) speaking in more clipped accents. (Goes back to his normal accent) And that was wrong because it kind of made it into a period piece that was distanced from its audience. We kind of had to make a bit more colloquial.
I like comedy. I just like really stupid shit. You know, I don’t want to do something boring and a bit prosaic. Like romantic comedy, that doesn’t really interest me at all. I like really farcical stuff, like I’ve got something coming out called 7 Days in Hell, which is an Andy Samberg tennis mockumentary I did. Which is quite fun. Yeah, I like comedy. It’s fun. You should have fun with work.
“Hardhome” just hit here in the States, so Game of Thrones fans here are losing their minds about it. What was it like to shoot that sprawling final sequence?
It was intense. To give you an idea: I shot this film (Testament of Youth), this entire film in three weeks. And that’s how long it took to shoot that twenty-minute sequence (on Game of Thrones). So it was one of the most intense pieces of filming, I’ve ever done. It was great. I loved it.
I saw it the other night and–you just never know how you’re going to feel about it. And it’s important to me that it worked. I really felt it did. I was very happy with it. It upped the stakes for Thrones, which was good. It was a marker point in Thrones that should have been hit, and needed to be hit. And I was happy with it.
When you’re interacting with the White Walkers, what do they look like on set?
Exactly as they do (on screen).
That’s all prosthetic makeup?
All prosthetic. The Night King is prosthetic as well. They look like that even down to the eyes. We are doing glowing (contacts). And it’s fucking hilarious, because you’re walking around (between setups) and you’ve got a White Walker talking to the Night King, just holding cups of tea. (Chuckles and smiles.)
Right. I did a horror movie set visit where all the actors were caked in fake blood, casually snacking on trail mix as they talked to us. And you’re just like, ‘What is happening?’
Yeah, it’s awesome.
So with Game of Thrones, you’ve obviously felt the full-force of fandom. What are you geeking out about movie or TV-wise?
It’s been a while since I geeked out over anything. I think that’s one of the downfalls of being in a show, that it sort of puts off watching shows. Breaking Bad was the last thing I was massively into. I guess The Tunnel.
I don’t know that one.
Yeah you should watch it. It’s British and it’s got Stephen Dellane in it, and it’s fantastic. But I really like documentary. I just recently–don’t tell me the end–but I just started watching The Jinx, which is fantastic.
I won’t say anything, except it’s amazing.
Yeah. I’m only on like episode two. I find that really interesting, how documentaries are moving into like serial form. It’s kind of wrong.
We also have the podcast Serial, which I don’t know if you’ve heard of. But if you like The Jinx, I recommend downloading all of it for after because it’s similar in that it’s investigating a murder case, in this instance questioning if the right person was convicted. And it became the obsession of everyone. There were listening parties like people used to have in the 1930s over radio shows, people were that into this show.
Really? Serial? Oh! Someone has told me about that. It’s kind of wrong that we want more of that documentary-style. It’s sort of–it bothers me a little bit that documentaries are moving in that way. I love documentary, but you have to watch it with such a cynical eye. I mean The Jinx is pretty open/close kind of case, but–
You mean the idea of almost exploiting the horror?
Exploiting the horror, but also telling the story from a very particular standpoint. Like you have to watch documentaries with a really cynical eye. Because it can be such an easy way to twist people’s opinions about things.
Because they assume it’s real?
Yeah. Because you are completely buying in to what your documentary is telling you.
What’s a doc that watched recently that really knocked you out?
Recently, I don’t know. I haven’t had a lot of time. But my favorite documentary of all time is Man on Wire. Have you seen that?
You’ve got to fucking love that.
Testament of Youth opens June 5, 2015.