The Sunday Times

The Interview: Kit Harington, Game of Thrones actor

It’s not easy keeping secrets in showbiz, but Kit Harington turned out to be rather good at it. For almost a year, after the Game of Thrones star’s character, Jon Snow, was turned into a pincushion by his supposedly loyal men in the Night’s Watch, all anyone wanted to know was whether he was really dead. The information was highly classified — even Barack Obama wasn’t able to find out the answer when he quizzed one of the show’s directors about the fate of his favourite character.

But Harington proved well suited to keeping it under his armour and batted away questions from journalists, friends and hangers-on with a succession of terse rejoinders. In fact the only time he appears to have cracked was when a police officer pulled him over for speeding. The bobby offered to let him off the ticket if he would admit whether Snow lived. Harington blabbed, and the officer let him go with a respectful “On your way, Lord Commander”.

There has been another secret in Harington’s life this year, that of his relationship with his co-star Rose Leslie. The pair got together when the flame-haired Scot played Harington’s on-screen lover, Ygritte. Their relationship has been on and off, leading to prolonged speculation about whether or not they were still seeing each other.

It’s all out in the open now, though. Jon Snow lives, revivified by the “Red Woman”, Melisandre. And, to the delight of the world’s paparazzi, Kit and Rose are definitely back on, holding hands on the red carpets.

And so Harington is finally allowed to talk. He has described the “formidable test” of keeping Snow’s secret, and has released a video apologising to his fans. “I’m glad that people were upset,” he said. “My biggest fear was that people were not going to care that Jon Snow was dead.” He’s also opened up on the subject of him and Leslie, recalling that they fell in love while shooting Thrones in Iceland under the “magical” northern lights. “If you’re already attracted to someone, and then they play your love interest, it becomes very easy to fall in love,” he said.

Harington may be able to talk freely again, but I wouldn’t expect a gushing torrent of revelations. Becoming famous, properly photographers-hiding-in-the-bushes famous, has made this 29-year-old more than a little wary of the spotlight.

“At the start of my career I would’ve wanted it,” he says when we meet. “I didn’t think I was a private person, but I’ve realised I find it very hard to be myself around someone I’ve just met. You meet a lot of people who feel they know you, and I don’t know how to be around that person … I’ve found I’ll be quite awkward.”

Off screen, Harington is much as you’d expect him to be: gruff, melancholic, diminutive, graceful and infuriatingly handsome. If Jon Snow had gone to drama school instead of learning to kill savage wildlings, he’d be Kit Harington. He has the poise of an actor, not the menace of a warrior, though he swears and smokes like an off-duty colour sergeant.

We are meeting for an interview not to promote a blockbuster, but because he wants to talk about his cousin and friend Laurent, who has severe learning disabilities, lives in special housing and is assisted by the charity Mencap.

On screen, Harington almost always plays romantic warriors. The key to his appeal is that he plays these action roles with a bit of soul. His doleful brown eyes and husky delivery suggest a hero with a hinterland, a swordsman with a sensitive side. This is true off screen as well. He has a calm, measured aura that puts those around him at ease, not least Laurent, whose severe double diagnosis of autism and Down’s syndrome can make life difficult for his family.

Born two years apart, he and Laurent grew up together, part of a crew of five male cousins that included Harington’s brother Jack. But Laurent was always a bit different. “I can’t really pinpoint when I became aware that Laurent had Down’s syndrome,” says Harington. “But when I was young it was a matter of pride: my cousin has Down’s syndrome.”

He still feels that pride today. Because of Laurent, Harington has become an ambassador for Mencap, and shares the charity’s concerns over the effects that benefits cuts are having on people such as his cousin, whose social life is built around funded activities and clubs.

He makes time for Laurent as often as he can, taking him to Zumba classes or swimming. “He loves swimming,” says Harington, “which is dangerous: he swims like a fish, but can drag you down.” Both of them sometimes become irritated by people’s well-meaning but patronising approach to Laurent. “The thing that irks Laurent and me is having sympathy bestowed upon him,” he says. “If he’s treated like a child, he’ll respond to it straight away. You’ll get a cold look from him that he doesn’t usually have.”

Seeing them together is endearing. In my time with him I’m unable to communicate much with Laurent, but I can observe the rapport he shares with his cousin. They wrestle together on the sofa and scroll through YouTube videos of Laurent’s favourite pop songs. Laurent spends much of the photoshoot winding Harington up.

“You’d be mistaken to think Laurent doesn’t know the situation,” says Harington. “He knows it’s a photoshoot, he knows I’m an actor, so he wants to make me look like a prick.” Laurent carries a scrapbook with him everywhere, filled with all his favourite things, mostly relating to Disney films. “Walking past a Disney store with Laurent is a nightmare,” Harington jokes. “He will not leave until you get him something. One time in Westfield [shopping centre] we completely lost him in there. We had to call his mum, who was, like, ‘Oh no, red alert!’ ”

The pair have always been close, but in a life as busy as Harington’s, in which he is constantly communicating with people he hardly knows, Laurent’s qualities have become even more apparent. “I feel lucky knowing Laurent, knowing someone with Down’s syndrome,” he says. “He’s incredibly empathetic; his emotional intelligence is hugely in tune. On many occasions when I’m a little sad, no one apart from Laurent will notice. He’ll come and sit next to you, give you a big hug. He has time that other people don’t. I have great admiration for him.”

Much like Jon Snow, Harington is not the chattiest. “Being around Laurent allows me, in a selfish way, not to communicate,” he says, “not to deal with talking. You can have an emotional conversation with him, though of course sometimes he’s not in the mood and will just say, ‘Go away — I’m watching a movie.’ ”

Dealing with Laurent’s Down’s syndrome is second nature to Harington now, but it can still be difficult at times. “What continues to be hard is when you see him sad,” he says. “Especially in his teenage years, he’d be like any teenager: he’d have huge mood swings but wouldn’t be able to communicate what he was feeling, the solitude he was feeling. He’d cry and feel down. With another teenager you could find a way round. That was hard and it still is.”

Laurent clearly offers respite from a chaotic and sometimes difficult life, but Harington is keen to emphasise that he doesn’t dislike his fame and success, or take it for granted. He admits being a narcissist and wouldn’t want to “act in a box” without receiving recognition for his work. But he quickly picks up on his “difficulties of fame” theme again when we get onto the subject of camera phones, which infuriate him.

“They are just a nightmare. Being in the public eye is a real channel into the extremes of human life: there are really pleasant people who are great, and then people expect things from you that they shouldn’t expect from anyone.”

He believes there needs to be phone “etiquette” and, like the singer Justin Bieber, he has started saying no to selfie requests. “There’s a really ugly culture of taking anything without that person’s permission. Everyone thinks they’re a journalist.”

The global phenomenon that is Game of Thrones has launched many careers, but Harington has long been its A-lister-in-waiting, his boyish good looks and thespian prowess enticing interest from Hollywood. He studied at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and his breakthrough appearance was in the stage version of War Horse, which he followed with a role in Posh, a hugely successful play by Laura Wade that skewered the Bullingdon Club.

With a baronet for an uncle and a direct line of descent from Charles II, Harington has some seriously posh connections himself — much like his girlfriend, Rose, the daughter of a Scottish clan leader who grew up in a castle. His childhood wasn’t all public school and polo, though — he was state-educated and spent much of his teens living in Worcester; his father had a company that ran trade shows, and his mother wrote plays and taught creative writing.

Harington has strong acting credentials, but his career outside Thrones has been hit-and-miss so far: there was a limp film adaptation of the TV show Spooks, the slightly silly swords-and-sandals film Pompeii and a soulful performance in Testament of Youth, a biopic of Vera Brittain.

There is plenty more to come — he’s been playing Faustus on the London stage and is due to play the lead in The Death and Life of John F Donovan next year alongside Susan Sarandon and Jessica Chastain — but Harington thinks his fame may have peaked. I’m inclined to disagree, but what’s interesting is that he would be quite pleased if it were true.

“I don’t want to seem ungrateful — I’m lucky,” he says. “But I can’t say that I like a lot of attention a lot of the time. You can’t pick and choose when you get it.”

Game of Thrones took over his life and career, but Harington says he is looking forward to getting back into work that “tests” him. He has instructed his “team” that he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a sword-wielding hunk any more. He is fed up with constant questions about his hair, six-pack or love life and believes it’s time sexism towards men in film is properly acknowledged.

I’ve never wanted Thrones to end. It’s been a large and important part of my twenties
“I think there is a double standard. If you said to a girl, ‘Do you like being called a babe?’ and she said, ‘No, not really,’ she’d be absolutely right. I like to think of myself as more than a head of hair or a set of looks. It’s demeaning. Yes, in some ways you could argue I’ve been employed for a look I have. But there’s a sexism that happens towards men. There’s definitely a sexism in our industry that happens towards women, and there is towards men as well. At some points during photoshoots when I’m asked to strip down, I felt that. If I felt I was being employed just for my looks, I’d stop acting.”

It’s hard not to respect Harington, for his measured but forceful opinions and for his obvious devotion to his cousin Laurent. I want to like him, too, but with me he is reserved, letting only the odd joke slip out from behind his cautious facade. Is he always a bit morose? “I can be. But I’m far more jovial than I am in interviews or in public. I get on guard. There’s a lot of me in Jon Snow, but when I wasn’t playing Jon on set I was a clown.”

Still, he says he does suffer from depression and has found that life as an actor on the road can be “uniquely solitary”, making it “tough to maintain relationships”. He doesn’t have any particular hobbies, beyond reading, watching films and writing scripts with his housemate. All of that can feel a lot like work, though.

“I do wish I had more hobbies,” he says. “That’s one part of my life I lack. Whenever I try to pick up a hobby and take it to the set, I look like an idiot there with a ukulele .” Sport is difficult because he doesn’t want to risk another injury — early on in his Thrones career he broke his ankle and had to get a stunt double. “I was hammered and climbing through my bedroom window — idiot, idiot,” he shakes his head ruefully.

He’s clearly back in the show for now, although his character seems quieter and somewhat chastened since he was betrayed and murdered. But as the marathon series, which started filming in 2010, nears its end, I wonder if he ever regrets how much of his life it has consumed. “There have been frustrations that it does take six months of the actor’s year,” he says. “But I’ve never wanted Thrones to end. It’s been a large and important part of my twenties.”

Harington says he is “in a very lucky position moneywise”, living in north London in what he calls “the house that Thrones built”. “Without it, I wouldn’t have had half the amazing opportunities that have come through. It will follow me around for ever, and I will love it dearly.”

As I follow him out into a rainy London afternoon for one of his many fag breaks, I wonder if he could be tempted by the sunshine and megabucks of Hollywood. “F***, no,” he replies . “I’m not really concerned about getting to the Oscars. I’m not driven to be the biggest star in the world.” On reflection, I think he may actually be more suited to rainy London afternoons than life on Malibu beach, and would prefer to spend his time taking Laurent to the Disney shop rather than partying at the Chateau Marmont. If I’ve judged Kit Harington right, he’ll take that as a compliment.

Interviewed by Josh Glancy