Kit Harington is best known for playing the broody bastard Jon Snow on HBO’s hit drama fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” But rather than play moody action heroes for the rest of his career, Harington has decided to branch out sooner, rather than later, taking on the role of Roland Leighton in James Kent’s feature film directorial debut, “Testament of Youth.”
The film is based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same name, which chronicles her time as a nurse during World War I, in which her brother and her fiancé Roland fought. Roland is a romantic and a poet; a man of more words than the stoic Jon Snow. Indiewire chatted with Harington a few days after one of his most action-packed episodes of “Game of Thrones” had just aired to inquire about his desire to say a bit more.
“Testament of Youth” opens Friday, June 5 in limited release.
What drew you to this role?
I have a real interest in this period. As a teenager I was fascinated by the first World War and the literature surrounding it. I grew up reading War poets, Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen. I actually studied this text in school so I knew it quite well. I just thought it was a beautiful, unique movie. A woman’s perspective of war, which is so rarely told. A great chance to play 19, probably the last time in my life. [laughs]
What other reading did you do to prepare?
I reread “Testament of Youth” and that was useful, but actually I think it was more useful for Alicia [Vikander], since it’s Vera’s memories, Vera’s story. What was more useful for me was a book called “Letters from a Lost Generation.” It was the actual letters they wrote to each other. So I had my character’s own voice, which is rare. That was the main thing I had on me all set. And also my anthologies of war poems. Because I think his poetry, as [Vera] says in the film, is quite derivative of other poets’ stuff. So I wanted to immerse myself in the poets of that period to get inside his head.
Have you ever taken a stab at writing poetry?
Yeah, really badly. [laughs] My poetry that I’ve written in the past… I like the war poets because they had to be quite concise poems, you know three stanzas, four stanzas that’s it. And they had to get their experience of this incredible war out in that amount of time on one piece of paper that they carry around with them. I love that form of poetry, very brief, very quick, concise thoughts.
Outside of that era are there any other writers that you enjoy?
Yeah I’m a big Philip Larkin fan. There’s a great book called “Poems on the Underground.” It’s a great anthology of poems that people have put on the underground, again they have to be small enough that people can read quickly. Maybe I’m just lazy. [laughs]
The character is a romantic poet. It’s quite a shift from the men of action that you’ve been playing recently in things like “Pompeii” or “Game of Thrones.” How did that difference feel for you?
It’s a completely different movie than anything I’ve ever done before. I was doing a movie straight after this called “Spooks” which is an action, spy thriller. So it was nice to go from this, which is a period drama about the first World War, to that. There’s not as much going for character, and I’ve done a lot of them at this point so this was a chance to do something different.
Are you looking to do more of this type of film?
Yeah. [laughs] I’ve played moody action heroes for quite a while.
There’s a thread a sentiment of this generation needing to fulfill a duty or to enlist or feel like they have to contribute something. Is that a thing that’s lost on people our age?
It was hard to get into the mindset of that, of any of them not knowing what they were enlisting for. This war changed everything, it changed war, warfare it changed…it wiped out a generation of people. But before that, patriotism was high for one’s country, for duty, honor, heroism, that’s what Roland believed in. And he was an intelligent man, he wasn’t stupid. But he had been indoctrinated growing up into believing in a form of patriotism that might be quite lost on us now, probably rightly so.
Is there any responsibility that comes with playing a character based on a real person?
I wasn’t nervous about it. On paper he seemed to have been done justice. I was reading his poems throughout the film because he had a kind of, I felt a responsibility to that. But no I just really reveled in getting to portray this young man who existed and was a brilliant young man. It’s quite sad that [his poems] are obviously a voice of someone with great talent but that hasn’t developed enough as a writer. They’re still quite simplistic, his poems. Still quite derivative of other people’s poems. I think that’s the saddest thing, that they show great talent, he has a beautiful voice. Who knows what he could have been if he had lived, he could have been a great writer. He could have been our next fucking T.S. Eliot.
Is it true that, before you had gotten into acting, you had an interest in journalism or war correspondence?
Yeah, I think it was probably a performance aspect. I really respected the work of Jon Snow, the news reader in the UK, which is ironic. [laughs] But I think if I could go back and do something else if I wanted to I would be a travel journalist. That would be an amazing job.
What draws you to that?
I read a piece recently about a hotel in Morocco, it was so beautifully constructed. I just thought it would be a great thing to be able to travel and write. Some of my favorite books are travel books.
That’s so funny because I’m going to Morocco later this year.
Oh wow, I really want to do that. Apparently you’ve got to be taken into the desert and spend the night under the stars. You can do it with like tour guides, they’ll take you.
You got your start in one of my favorite pieces of theater, “War Horse.” With that background what are some of your favorite things about theater?
It’s been a while since I’ve done any theater and I really want to do more. I sadly don’t feel like a wetter actor anymore. I was trained in theater for three years, so I am. But I haven’t set foot on stage in four years and I want to get back to it. Acting for theater is like a roller coaster that you get on. All of your energy goes into one two hour piece, whereas film days are like 16 hours and the energy ebbs and flows and ebbs and flows and you have to sort of conserve energy.
Has your career gone in the way you expected? How’s the fame treated you? Is it sudden? Scary? Fun?
It’s fun at times. You have to have quite a tough skin as an actor. You’re in the spotlight when you’re in something like “Thrones.” You’re subject to many many arrows. That’s the hard bit, is knowing what you’re doing is right and being proud of something in the age of the internet where we live with such a fierce kind of criticism.
You shoot up in Iceland and in Northern Ireland, so your character is a bit isolated from the rest of the main cast. So what’s it like when you guys all get together at a premiere or something like Comic Con?
A fucking shitshow. [laughs] It’s a fucking shitshow. We’re a naughty cast. We’re good friends. We’re genuinely close. Having shared this great experience of something that’s worked and we’re enjoying it.
Are you a reader of the novels?
I am, well I’ve read four of them.
So now that the show is veering away from the novels are you excited to be surprised just as much as the audience is?
Yeah. Yeah it’s been really interesting this season. It was really cool the way they departed…
Especially with this most recent episode…
That was quite a big one yeah.
You had that big battle and you had another big battle last season. Do you crave those big shoots after a season of brooding?
Yeah definitely. [laughs] You want at least one of those a season and I do generally have an action piece a season, every year so far I have. Yeah that’s kinda what Jon likes to do, it’s what I like to do, mucking in with the fighting stuff, not talking, talking’s boring.