MW Cover Story: Kit Harington On Life After Game Of Thrones
Since laying down his sword in Game of Thrones, the English actor has been fighting other battles, including alcohol addiction and depression — and the first fatiguing months of fatherhood
By Charlotte Edwardes/The Times
Every morning, shortly before he wakes up his six-month-old baby, Kit Harington rings his mother to express thanks; such is the revelatory insight he now has into parenthood. And, yes, it’s also for help when he gets the baby out of his crib, but, mostly, “I can’t believe I took them for granted like that. I look at our boy, and I’m, like, ‘I’m never going to get the thanks that I deserve for changing all these nappies and looking after you!’ ”
The baby — Harington and his wife, the actress Rose Leslie, do not wish to make his name public— was born at University College Hospital in London in January. Harington has a phobia of needles and fainted at one antenatal, so no, he did not cut the cord. “I’m a real wimp when it comes to blood and pain.” His impression of the event is still his profound shock: “I remember saying over and again, ‘It’s a baby. It’s a baby. It’s a baby.’ ”
Fatherhood and marriage are central to Harington’s new life. Sober for two-and-a-half years following a stint in rehab, it’s a life for which he is very grateful — although cautiously so because sobriety is a fragile thing.
He feels settled now; retreating on the horizon is a period so dark he thought about taking his own life. It’s a period that overlapped with the last days of Jon Snow, the Game of Thrones character he played for a decade to an audience so fanatical that 19.3 million watched the finale. Life is “wonderful”, he says. “I have a child and my relationship is brilliant… I’m a very, very happy, content, sober man.”
But his expression throughout the first chat we have for this interview remains disconcertingly one of a very solemn, tortured, sober man. He struggles to get comfortable in his “too-short shorts”, and then he struggles with the light being too bright outside the window of his hotel room in humid upstate New York, but most of all he struggles with my questions, deciding at one point, “Yeah, I am talking shit.” Perhaps it’s the four publicists sitting in on our Zoom conversation, which seems extra even in this Britney Spears era. They insist they won’t interfere (they do). They have prepped me that he’ll talk about rehab, family, and work. But Harington gives short closed answers until I feel as agonised in his company as he apparently does.
For the uninitiated: Game of Thrones, which ran for eight series from 2011 to 2019, is a sprawling ensemble piece with a cult following based on fantasy novels by George RR Martin. The England captain Harry Kane watched episodes to help him decompress between games in the Euros. The Conservative ministers Michael Gove and Dominic Raab are enthusiasts. For fans, Jon Snow became the ultimate hero: a soot-streaked epic fighter-lover who broods against landscapes of scattered dead bodies or drifting snow or drifting smoke.
As his character became increasingly central to the show, Harington, 34, felt increasingly visible in real life. He couldn’t go to Sainsbury’s without whispers following him down the aisles. Women screamed when they saw him. Sometimes they cried. So intense was the attention that when he appeared, between series, in a West End theatre production, the venue was mobbed. One fan bought a front row seat every night for 40 shows.
When I reference the adulation and mention how he’s often labelled one of the world’s sexiest men, he bridles. “I have a problem with being referred to as incredibly sexy, or a hunk or anything, because it’s incredibly demeaning,” he says. “It’s demeaning for both women and men. It’s demeaning for anyone to be categorised by their appearance, no matter how that might sound when some people might say it’s what gets me work. Well, I disagree with that.”
As he’s saying this the screen freezes and his face is inanimate mid-complaint, like an insect impacting a windscreen. When he reconnects, I ask what does get him work. “My acting. I would hope it would be something that I bring to screen that’s not just f***ing how I appear.”
After a weekend tormenting himself that this was an awkward first chat (it was), he calls back without the nannying publicists, apologises and wonders if he had been suffering from a bout of laryngitis. (Was there ever a louder metaphor for not wanting to talk than “I lost my voice”?)
He says that not only had he been stumped on what to say about rehab, but he also felt “scared” talking about matters close to his heart. “I do have a genuine fear of being the subject of outrage if I say something that I do believe in, but that might, somehow, offend people generally, or a certain group of people.”
More on all this later. First, fatherhood. The initial three months were “slightly torture,” he admits. “A kind of hell.” But he’s getting the hang of it now, changing nappies and “being Dad” while Leslie, who also starred in Thrones, as well as Downton Abbey and The Good Fight, is out shooting a job for HBO that has taken them both to New York for the next few months.
“Being a dad is f***ing …” he stalls. “Like, honestly, my back is wrecked. I go to the gym quite a bit, but there’s something about having a child that is the most physically draining thing. My hat goes off to any single parent. Any single parent, you’re a f***ing genius. I don’t know how you do it. Because it’s more exhausting than everything I did on Thrones.”
The parenting advice he received had been never-ending, right down to how to leave the hospital. Although it bothers him that no one mentioned how much his life would change. His own parenting tip would be: “Have a moment to say goodbye to your old life. You’re so prepped about gearing up for being a parent that you forget. And then it’s too late. It’s gone.” He would have liked to have marked the occasion “with a kind of stag”.
He doesn’t say which of them had the idea (my guess is Leslie), but he prepared for the existential crisis of fatherhood by getting a dog, a whippet (name also not public), which arrived last March. “We raised a puppy,” is how he phrases it. “It was an exercise in projection, this other little animal [onto which] you project all your anxiety, your fears about the world — ‘It doesn’t love me, it does love me’ — all of that stuff. I’ve never had a pet before and I guess a child is like that times a thousand. I just have to be careful I don’t project my anxiety onto the child too much.”
Christopher “Kit” Harington — named and nicknamed after the playwright Christopher Marlowe — and his older brother, Jack, were brought up in Acton, west London, by his father, Sir David, a businessman and 15th baronet, and mother, Deborah, a playwright and artist. When he was 11, the family moved to Worcestershire, where he went to a comprehensive school because of his parents’ passionate belief in state education.
On both sides of his family he is descended from nobility. A portrait of Lady Harington from 1603 hangs in the 15th-century house he shares with Leslie in Suffolk, and through his mother’s family he is a descendent of Robert Catesby (Catesby is his actual middle name), the Catholic ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot, who he played in a BBC mini-series in 2017.
Although he “adored” both parents — “I put them on pretty unattainable pedestals” — he speaks most highly of his mother. It was because of her that he wanted to act, he says. It gave him a way of slotting into her professional life as a playwright. “I wanted to do what Mum did. She was a real hero of mine. Dad as well. But what Mum did specifically. Like with any child, you try and do the thing that will get you approval from your parents. Then suddenly it works out and you’re an actor, and a professional actor at that, and you’ve had some success. You’re, like, ‘Well, who am I trying to impress now?’”
While he expresses no criticism of them, he says this desire to impress is not something he wants to pass down to his son. “I guess I hope it doesn’t switch to my child. Like I have to try and be careful of that.”
Leslie he met on Thrones, of course. She played Ygritte, the wildling who takes his on-screen virginity (and delivers the immortal line, “You know nothing, Jon Snow”). She, too, is from nobility: a descendent of clan chiefs, who grew up in Scottish castles and has a voice like scissors cutting silk. He can’t recall the moment he first saw her, more “snapshots” and then “realising that she was very beautiful and attractive in every way”. It’s their ten-year anniversary coming up, although their youth and work commitments meant they were “sort of on and off and on and off”, for a while. “Until we realised that being off was a lot more dull than being on”, he says, which is one way of putting it.
His was a cinematic proposal: by moonlight, next to a fire pit, surrounded by trees in the countryside. The wedding in 2018 was in Scotland: traditional, surrounded by cast members and crew, before he returned to shoot the last epic episodes of Thrones. It was a period of intense emotion and physical exhaustion, he says, and he wept a great deal.
In the three years since he shed Snow’s fur cape — an act he has described as like ripping off his own skin — “I went through some pretty horrible stuff.”
“Things that have happened to me since Thrones ended, and that were happening during Thrones, were of a pretty traumatic nature and they did include alcohol,” he says. Indeed, there were sporadic reports of drunken behaviour and his rep was once forced to issue a ferocious denial on his behalf when a Russian model named Olga Vlasova released photos purportedly of him crashed out on a hotel bed. Harington said he’d never met the woman.
Although it’s a cliché he’s not fond of, he says he hit rock bottom. “You get to a place where you feel like you are a bad person, you feel like you are a shameful person. And you feel that there’s no way out, that’s just who you are. And getting sober is the process of going, ‘No, I can change.’ One of my favourite things I learnt recently is that the expression ‘a leopard doesn’t change its spots’ is completely false: that a leopard actually does change its spots. I just think that’s the most beautiful thing. It really helped. That was something I kind of clung to; the idea that I could make this huge fundamental change in who I was and how I went about my life.”
He puts great emphasis on how dark things got, so I ask if he felt suicidal. He hesitates. “I will give you an answer to that question: the answer is yes. Yes of course. I went through periods of real depression where I wanted to do all sorts of things.” He tells me this in the hope that it will “maybe help someone, somewhere. But I definitely don’t want to be seen as a martyr or special. I’ve been through something, it’s my stuff. If it helps someone, that’s good.”
He was treated in the £95,000 a month Privé-Swiss retreat in Connecticut for “substances” and “behaviours” — I ask him what he means and he says, “mainly alcohol”. It’s clear from his voice that he still finds all this difficult. His marriage was tested to breaking point, “Yes. You can imagine the stresses that it causes to those around you.” But then he adds: “I will say about my addictions that I kept them very, very quiet and I was incredibly secretive and incredibly locked up with them. So they came as quite a surprise to the people around me. Which is quite often the case, I guess.”
Not long after rehab — and before parenthood — came lockdown, a period of relaxation, reflection and “dare I say romance”. He and Leslie retreated to their rambling country house, read books, gardened and performed skits for each other. What has Leslie taught him? “Kindness.”
While he was grateful for the Game of Thrones experience, and also, no doubt, for the rumoured half a million dollars per episode, what he wants to do now is mix it up with some artistic range. Right now, he’s shooting “an indie film”. When he returns to the UK, he’ll be on the London stage as Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse — a part he has “always, always said” he would “kill” to play. He did “the tennis ball speech”, he says, for his audition at Central School of Speech and Drama.
Most recently, he has filmed an episode for Modern Love, the Amazon series based on the essays about relationships from The New York Times. It’s set on a train between Galway and Dublin, with Lucy Boynton leading as a bluestocking student returning home for the first lockdown, and Harington playing a handsome stranger with whom she strikes up conversation across the carriage. It’s “beautiful” and “artful”, he says, “quite Normal People”, as in the Sally Rooney novel, and he likes that his character is a departure from the “strong, silent male, the show-no-emotion” type.
By which he surely means the Jon Snow type? “I actually don’t think Jon Snow was that,” he says. “I think he felt he had to be. If you look at him, he’s very vulnerable, and I hope some of that vulnerability came through with what I was trying to do with him.”
He thinks about masculinity and how it is defined a lot, and has done since his teens. He remembers looking at greeting cards for Mother’s and Father’s Day and noticing how men were portrayed as the breadwinners who did nothing around the house and it struck him even then as unfair on both sexes. He is wary about talking about this — “it’s quite a terrifying topic to step into” — but at the same time he has “a genuine kind of deeply held worry” about toxic masculinity.
If he was going to pinpoint a time that he felt the menace of it most oppressively in his own life, he’d probably say drama school. “We grew up with the Russell Crowe in Gladiator hero-type. It was a period of that awful expression ‘alpha male’. And our whole year had this ‘alpha male’ feel. Like, ‘Who is the alpha? Who is the best out of our group?’ I thought, ‘Now you’ve pushed me into a place where I am either alpha or beta, what kind of a choice is that?’”
As a teenage boy he was “pretty mopey actually”. He found himself being “a chameleon” because “I didn’t know where I fitted in. I tried to be a goth but the goths wouldn’t have me. I tried to be a skater but I couldn’t skate. Maybe that’s part of being an actor: I ended up wanting to be a bit of everything.”
On talk shows he often mentions his OCD, or at least how he scratches his balls when he sees an ambulance (not a joke), and salutes Travis Perkins lorries. These are the “fun ones”, he says dryly. Other traits, such as kissing the floor three times before going on stage, tapping wood for luck, kissing a crucifix or pictures of his mum and brother, were debilitating. “There was something with three drains where I had to stand on the middle drain with my right foot. It got to the point where I had to cross the road to stand on one. If I missed one, I had to walk back. I had to cut them loose. They became part of a few problems I had to get rid of.”
He admits that at times he handled fame badly — “Like all of us, I have been an arsehole” — but says his old friends have kept him grounded. Or as he puts it, “I’ve been incredibly privileged to have some real f***ing pricks as friends who told me the truth.” And that’s the lesson, he says. “Someone said to me once, ‘When you’re sitting at a table and everyone around that table you’re paying, that’s when you know you’re in trouble.’ ”
Tobacco is his only “vice” now (he’s given up cigarettes but I can hear him pulling on a vape), and “I’m trying to work out how to kick that.”
He is also at peace with Jon Snow, having wrestled the demons of living this huge role. He slayed them, not with Longclaw, the big sword that he wielded in the blockbuster — props wouldn’t let him take that home. No, he has slayed the fear that Snow would envelop his acting career like one of the bearskin cloaks he wears (also recalled by wardrobe) by processing it and by accepting it.
“I’ve come to terms with the fact that you don’t shake off a character like that. He’s there, he’s with you. For as long as I have a career I’m going to be referenced as ‘played Jon Snow’ and Game of Thrones — even if I do something just as successful. It’s taken a while to become proud of that. That’s the process — not shaking the character off, [but] becoming proud of the work you did.” He adds: “I’m at a point where I might be able to watch it,” before deciding that, actually, “I’m a little way off that”.
© Veenhoven-Amsterdam, 2021