By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Kit Harington has played swashbuckler Jon Snow, the illegitimate son of Lord Ned Stark (played by Sean Bean) on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” for five seasons. The 28-year-old Londoner has been known to make girls’ hearts go aflutter both on screen and off.
The formally trained actor moves ahead a few centuries from his period role for the World War I set romantic drama “Testament of Youth,” in which he plays a doomed British soldier named Roland in love with a headstrong, college-minded woman named Vera (“Ex Machina’s” Alicia Vikander). The James Kent-directed film is based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain, one of the U.K.’s most beloved writers of the early 20th century, who wrote critically of the Great War, her generation’s disenchantment and the heavy price of freedom.
Harington arrived for an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel in black t-shirt and jeans, his hair dark and wavy and sporting a beard. He spoke about playing an early 20th century idealist who starts out an idealistic poet in love with a beautiful girl and winds up paying the ultimate price in the trenches for king and country.
Q: How are your poetry skills these days?
Harington: They’ve always been pretty abysmal. But in all honesty I actually really like writing poetry. I’m just not very good at it. I thought I’d take some courses at some point and see if I like writing poetry, but it’s for my own benefit, not for anyone else’s viewing.
Q: What did you like about Roland’s poems?
Harington: When Vera calls them derivative, they are. They’re like Rupert Graves’ poems. He’s obviously a big fan of Rupert Graves and he’s doing his impersonation of him, and one of the saddest things, I think, is that he’s very good, but he’s young. He’s 19. He’ working out his style, and there’s some beautiful lines, but I think it’s really sad. It’s one of the saddest things is that he’s not quite there yet. He’s got so much room to progress as a writer and he’s killed before he gets the chance.
Q: The scene where the train is carrying all the soldiers off to war and you’re waving goodbye, and she’s running after you, it’s a very classic movie scene. So when you filmed that scene, did you have the sense of the classic nature of what you were acting?
Harington: I did. In my head I had all of those images, those kinds of flickering sepia images of all the soldiers waving. I had that in my head. It’s very (like) “Brief Encounter.” The moment at the train station, the gamboling in the background, the silence, and the whistle going off, which is kind of about going over the top in the trenches as well. I love that scene. Strangely, James (Kent) played hard house music, which was hilarious. He said, “Okay guys, we’re going to play some music now. It’s very serious, but we’re going to play some music and I just want you to roll with it and just see how you feel,” and I was expecting him to play something like Wagner, and then this kind of really hard house, trancy music came on.
I think I laughed through the first take, but it was really useful because it upped the energy. It upped the urgency of that scene. The setting was remarkable. It was very emotive because of it.
Q: The courtship is so abbreviated. Roland and Vera can’t even touch. They have a chaperone everywhere they go. What did you think about that, and did you do a lot of research into courtships of that period?
Harington: We did. The whole chaperone thing was something that we hoped would reach out to a younger audience of like, “They didn’t have to have that, did they?” I was doing DVD commentary for it, and that’s the first time I’d seen it in a while, and I realized how scandalous, how forward he is, just for holding her hand or tickling her behind the neck. That’s a really the equivalent of some much dirtier things that’s done in today’s cinemas.
James sort of was like, “They’re being really naughty and they kind of risky.” Vera and Roland never consummated their relationship. They never actually had sex because they weren’t married. It’s a different world, but I think we hoped that a younger audience would go and see that and find it amusing. The romanticism of it is fantastic.
I was the oldest out of the group of (the lead actors) at 27 and playing a 19-year-old. All through that courtship I had to keep reminding myself that I, Kit, would never have had sex to that point and would be very immature as far as that’s concerned and (touching Vera’s hand) would be incredibly exciting. It was quite a lot to sort of drag myself back to handholding or tickling, sending a kind of shiver up my spine. We filmed that whole sequence, running around London—or supposedly London—in two days. It was just a lot of fun because it was all quite wordless.
Sorry to bang on, but there is one moment in that sequence that you might miss. (Actress) Joanna Scanlan plays a chaperone, and there’s a brilliant moment in the art gallery where she is looking at the painting. I can’t remember which painting it is, but you can see she’s completely lost in the romance of it. This is a woman who’s probably the youngest of her family and therefore would never have had the chance to marry, and she’s caught up in this romantic idea of a painting while the two kids are running off and actually living it. You might miss it, but it’s a really useful moment that Joanna herself I think found.
Q: Do you think of yourself as romantic?
Harington: Yeah, I do. I’m a hopeless romantic. No, I am. I love it and it’s to my downfall sometimes. This part appealed to me on that level as well.
Q: What did you and Alicia do to get acquainted before making the film?
Harington: We were good friends before we got these roles, actually. We worked on (2014’s) “Seventh Son.” It couldn’t be more of a different movie, but we never actually got to do a scene together in that. Ben (Barnes) got all the scenes with her, but we got on very well. We had dinners and things, and so I knew her coming into this. She already had the part and I was brought in and see if it worked between us, and our chemistry really had something to it. We kind of came out of that room with Alicia and I are going, “Yeah, that was cool. That worked.” Having a scene with Alicia is almost a bit like doing battle, but in the best possible way. She’s so fierce and determined and knows precisely what she wants from the scene, and you have to battle her to get what you want. She’s not ungenerous. She’s very, very clear, and I found that quite exciting to work off and it kind of works for Vera as well.
Q: Most hit movies that you’ve done have been big epics like “Pompeii” and “Seventh Son.” This is an epic in a way. Also, has it been a struggle to find smaller, more intimate, movies where you’ve had to sell yourself, and say, “Hey, I want to do this too?”
Harington: It was really important for me that I got to do this movie. It balanced alongside a movie I’d already said yes to, and there was a moment where it looked like the dates weren’t going to work and I was distraught because I was very passionate about this piece. The industry, in general, still sees me now as—which is something I never predicted—as an action hero very much in the Jon Snow mold. I have to find things for my own creative sanity to break out of.
Q: Is that also a misinterpretation? Jon Snow isn’t just the sword fights and action. There’s a lot of that show that’s other stuff.
Harington: But he’s more of a classic action hero in a way. He’s much more than that, but in the world of “Thrones” that’s the role he fills. We sympathize with him. He’s a nice guy. He’s a hero. He’s got a brooding intensity. He lives very up in here (pointing to his head), but Roland was not that. Roland was very different from that in that he’s a kind of an arrogant, cocksure, young man. He tells Vera, “I can help you into Oxford. I’ve done the entrance exams. Why don’t you let the man tell you how this is done?” We should feel slightly angry with him because of that. I really like that kind of delicate dance of playing Roland because he has to be arrogant and full of himself.
Q: What was it like working with James Kent? Was there anything that stood out as a first time director for him and working with kind of a bunch of kids as his core group of actors? How was that?
Harington: I think he was very nervous. It was his first feature film, and I remember being on the set the first day and in all honesty, when a director is nervous, you get nervous, and I think that the first few days there was that.
I felt unsure because he was unsure, and then we found a rhythm He’s very clear. He thinks very clearly. He thinks very clearly about what it is he wants to bring from a scene, and he knew this story. He knew everything about this story to bring it to the screen, so after maybe the first three days when we’d all settled in to our rhythms, I just felt in very safe hands.
Q: “Testament of Youth” already opened in England. Did you find your fans from “Game of Thrones” were also attracted to this movie because you were in it?
Harington: I hope so. I think that in passing a poster you wouldn’t recognize me in this movie, so I hope that the kind of hardcore fans of “Thrones” will go and see this. I think one of the reasons that I was, other than just for playing the part that was important for this piece was that it hopefully brought in a younger audience, a “Thrones” audience. I think it started slow in England, like it came at a time when it came out alongside “Theory of Everything,” which is exactly in its bracket, and was competing against that and for that reason it fell behind, but it’s still going. It’s actually doing really, really well. It’s had a longevity, and I think, I hope, it will have that longevity here and that it might just sort of creep in the backdoor and people go and see more and more of it, and I hope that “Thrones” fans do go and see this because I want them to see me in a different role as well, just on a personal level.
Q: Did you like the fact that this is basically an anti-war film? Vera has her speech at the end where she says, “We can’t demand these reparations because it’s just going to continue,” and of course we all know what happened. Did you see that when you were reading the script and did you like the anti-war message of the film?
Harington: Vera was very much a pacifist, and I can’t talk too much about that. I don’t feel I’m qualified to talk too much about pacifism. I don’t know enough about it. I think I consider myself a pacifist. I think it’s a very important message to her at the end of her book. Looking back on the First World War, we should always remember what the consequence of war is and how horrific it can be.
Q: How much of you is in Roland? There must have been something in that character that you could really relate to and put into it.
Harington: I was an arrogant sod when I was younger. I still am.
Harington: Yeah, I related to him a lot actually. He’s kind of one of those people that is absolutely obsessed with heroism, writing and romance of art and literature, and I kind of was that way as well. My first incarnation of him was that he was very serious. He took everything seriously and thought about everything. Actually, he’s had to be lighter than that, so in some ways we were very similar in that we had the same interests and we had a certain arrogance about us when we were that age, but in other ways I was always much more serious as a kid than him and it was right to make him sort of lighter.
Q: You have some exceptional ancestors. How much research have you done to your genealogy, and secondly, is there anyone from your family tree that you’d like to play at some point?
Harington: There is one ancestor of mine who I fully intend to play. I won’t say whom. It’s always interesting finding out family stories. I don’t think because they relate to you that much. I’m not similar to my great-great-great-great grandfather. That’s too distant for me, but just to hear the stories, that’s a reason to get into researching your ancestors, finding out when doing this movie I wanted to know about who in my family fought in the First World War, and as it happens, there was a General Harington who was in charge of a lot of men, and actually quite good as far as the generals of the First World War go, who were quite sort of bringing them back, not in a positive sense.
Q: Do you have any actors that you hold a special esteem or that you model yourself after?
Harington: Yeah. The one that made me want to act was Ben Whishaw. I saw him do “Hamlet” at the Old Vic, which is amazing.