Vera Brittain wasn't going to settle for any old chap. Long before she was the author of perhaps the greatest memoir of the First World War era and the generational carnage it wrought on early-20th-century Britain, she was a spirited young woman, out of step with her time and her position.
An upper-middle-class teenager who stood up to her father. A girl determined to follow her own intellectual path, all the way to Oxford. A feminist when the term was barely known. A writer of firm principle and precocious talent.
So when it came to making the film adaptation of Brittain's Testament of Youth, the producers knew their casting had to be pitch-perfect. And they found their Vera in Scandinavia. It was an inspired choice. In this sweeping-yet-intimate realisation of the 600-page autobiography, 26-year-old Swede Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina, this month's Ex Machina) is mesmerising as the trailblazing, well-to-do young Edwardian whose life is shattered when her nearest and dearest are all killed in France.
What man, then, could match that?
"Vera aimed high in her choice of lover," says Testament of Youth's director James Kent. "She's an extraordinary young lady and she's not going to go with just anyone. So I needed an actor who could be someone that she would respect and admire, and would see in Vera the qualities that she brings into the world. And Kit Harington did that," states the filmmaker of the actor he cast in the pivotal part of Roland Leighton, Brittain's first love, a poet and young officer killed on the Western Front aged only 20.
"Kit's very soulful. Bright. Artistic. And at the same time he's incredibly handsome and quite rugged. That combination provided a complexity that in a way elevated Vera. That's the kind of man, the magnetic personality, that she would go towards. And Kit just had all that."
Harington is used to such effusiveness. As Jon Snow, fur-draped warrior of the Night's Watch in Game of Thrones, he's enjoyed four seasons of near-rabid idolatory, first from the source books' legions of fans, then from the wildly successful HBO series' huge global audience.
As the Londoner told he me the last time we met, in 2013, prior to the broadcast of the third series, he had heaps of fanmail "stocked up at home. My favourite thing I got was a little hand puppet from Japan – you get it from literally every country. That's incredible." At the annual San Diego Comic-Con, ground zero for the sci-fi, fantasy and horror hardcore, "people come dressed as you! And they do a bloody good job. And I've had a couple of proposals of marriage. Which is nice."
Even after one series, the GoT phenomenon had upended the life of this young actor for whom it was his debut screen job out of drama school. When I first interviewed him, on the show's Belfast set in 2011, Harington was well aware already that the bastard son of House Stark is "beloved by fans, and that is a pressure – you want to do it justice. And you won't please everybody. But you know what's weird? People come up to you and say, 'Now when I read the books you're the person in my head'."
Doubly weird, as in George RR Martin's novels, Snow is introduced as a 14-year-old. To help the actor "age up" the character, Harington had to grow a proto-hipster beard and a wild thatch of hair.
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When we meet this time, in a central London hotel, that barnet is on full, lustrous display. Harington shot Testament of Youth last year, in his annual six-month hiatus between GoT filming commitments. But he's just finished filming season five, and his hair remains fully warrior-shaggy – as it must do the year round. It's a contractual stipulation that necessitated the wearing of an all-concealing hairpiece to play Leighton.
"It was fine," insists the stocky 28-year-old of the enforced wiggery-pokery. Folded as casually as he can into an upright chair in the large suite, packet of fags twitchily to hand, Harington shrugs. "Preferably I wouldn't have to. I'd like to cut this off and have short hair for this [film], naturally. But that was the only way we could do it."
Playing the male lead in Testament of Youth offered a drawing together of his interests, personal and professional. His first gig out of Central School of Speech and Drama was in the original London West End production of War Horse. And prior to that, as a schoolboy, he'd visited the First World War battlefields with his father, a businessman (now retired) who ran trade shows.
"That's what kicked it all off, actually," says Harington, his well-spoken accent betraying neither his childhood as "a proper London boy" nor his teenage years in Worcestershire, where his family moved when he was 11. (That said, it's not as fruitily-posh as his extended ancestry would suggest – he counts baronets and MPs in his paternal bloodline.) "That's the first time I was exposed to that part of history, dad taking me out there. It was a personal trip – he took me and my brother separately at different times. It wasn't exactly a father-son bonding, but it was something he felt very important for us to see at a young age. Not as a patriotic thing. Not really as a rite of passage. It was just, 'This is war and you need to know about it'.
"And that, I think, kicked off my interest in doing English literature, where we were studying the war poets, and also history, and studied the First World War."
Harington dug deep into Leighton's life, reading not only Brittain's account of him, but also poring over his letters and poems. The alumnus of Uppingham – which, like many public schools at the time, had a strong military cadet force – was from a literary background: father, literary editor of the Daily Mail, mother, a novelist. As Brittain said of him, "he may have been only 19, but could easily have passed for 30". He was also described as "God's Englishman". All told, Leighton sounds quite the solemn youth.
Harington nods. "It's interesting you say that, because when I did some research before even getting into rehearsal, I looked at him and I thought, he is a very serious young man. He's completely transfixed and obsessed with the idea of heroism, and honour, and duty. All these things that have kind of been punched out of us since these two [world] wars – in my youth anyway. I wasn't obsessed with heroism and duty; I had a very cynical view of all that stuff."
He admits he duly brought those old-fashioned virtues to his initial scenes on set. He also gave Leighton what he thought was the appropriate accent: clipped, RP, the traditional period-drama approach. But refreshingly he admits that he got both of those wrong – the accent he was using "sounded generic and clichéd", to such an extent that it would "distance" audiences.
"James [Kent] was quite right in saying to me: 'You need to remember that he's 19, he's falling in love for the first time, he's a teenager – he's young, he's young, he's young'," he recounts, snapping his fingers rapidly. "I was 27 when I did it; I was almost 10 years older than him. So you need to take yourself back to that place. Because there's plenty of time for the serious change in him that happens, for the solemn part of Roland [once he's gone to war], later."
Kit Harington was first exposed to – and thrilled by – acting, courtesy of his family's repeated outings to the theatre. When he was a child, his mother was a playwright, although she's now a painter. His parents' encouragement led him to try acting at school. Having hit the ground running straight out of drama school, Harington is now, though, looking for a pause. The just-completed season of GoT has been gruelling. No scenes in Iceland this time, but he was on set "every single day in Belfast. And I had more dates than anyone this year – I was fucking there," he says with a mixture of weariness and pride.
Last year, he also shot Spooks: The Greater Good, a "high-octane" big-screen outing for the long-running BBC spy drama that's due in cinemas in May, plus a mockumentary for HBO in which he plays "an unbelievably thick tennis player. I've never dipped my toe into comedy so I hope it will be funny to watch". So after all that, he's hoping to take some time off this year, perhaps travelling "with a friend". Although whether that friend is his rumoured on/off girlfriend Rose Leslie (who plays his GoT onscreen lover/nemesis Ygritte), he isn't saying.
"I'm in that incredibly privileged position of being financially stable. Of having a show which maintains a profile for me as an actor – one of the biggest shows on TV. And I don't see the need in taking work for the sake of work. I have done that in the past, over the past five years. Like most actors, I'm terrified if there's a break – 'Oh fuck, everyone's going to forget who I am, I'm never going to work again'."
He's probably referring here to Pompeii, last year's swords'n'lava blockbuster in which he had the lead. The big-budget film may have ramped up his leading-man status, to the extent that he was last month deemed cover-star-worthy by British GQ. But, critically, the film was a disaster flick in all the wrong senses. Among other issues, perhaps his role – a heroic gladiator – was too close to Jon Snow. Harington, though, is sanguine, if not defiant, about the experience.
"I got fucking buff! The character was incredibly inward, internal. It wasn't a movie where I did it for the script. I did it because it was gonna be a chance to look... fucking tough!" he laughs.
"And that's great. You should be honest about these things... And it was only after that I went, OK, I don't want to do that any more – I want to do something like Testament of Youth."
James Kent testifies to Harington's hunger for the part of Roland Leighton, and for the rebrand it offered.
"Kit really, really wanted the part. I think, for him, it was a breakout role. When you're a young actor on a big American TV series that keeps repeating, it's only accessing one side of you. And what Kit brought to his audition was the Renaissance man that Roland is."
True(ish) to that description, Harington harbours writing ambitions, and filmmaking ones, too.
"I'm wanting to move into producing. I've kind of set the cogs going on that..." he nods. "It's one of those things: before whenever it is that I finish Thrones..." he begins, a statement that might suggest that Jon Snow lives to survive another season in a show that loves to kill off its leading men (RIP Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Charles Dance, Jack Gleeson – and more) "...I need to really process what I want to do next. And eventually it may not be acting. I love it, but I need to make sure that's what I want to do. And it's important for me that I force myself to have breathers. 'Cause I'm a fucking workaholic. Even now, having finished Thrones, and having a whole day off, I just can't deal with it. I need to work."
But not necessarily on a horse, with a sword, with his top off and/or some armour. Kit Harington wants to be, can be, more than that, as his soulful, empathetic portrayal of Roland Leighton affirms.
"I'm not going to be that person for ever," he says forcefully of his fantasy world, action-man, bread-and-butter role. "So I can't let the industry decide that's who I am. I need to do stuff for my own... creativity. My own..." He frowns. "My own health, really. I created one character and then everyone sees you as that character – and I didn't get into this game for that"
'Testament of Youth' is in cinemas now
Game of Thrones' lead characters are notoriously susceptible to violent deaths. So what's left of the Stark clan and their associates who began the show as its leads when episode one aired in 2011?
Kit Harington as Jon Snow
Having (just) survived the brutal Battle of Castle Black in series 4
Sean Bean as Lord Eddard 'Ned' Stark
Decapitated at the orders of King Joffrey
Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon
Fatally wounded while boar hunting
Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn Stark
Throat cut at the Red Wedding
Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark
Exiled as chief suspect in murder of King Joffrey
Maisie Williams as Arya Stark
On the run
Richard Madden as Robb Stark
Stabbed in the heart at the Red Wedding
Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy
Captured prisoner-turned-brainwashed-slave known as 'Reek'
Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Brandon 'Bran' Stark
Paralysed from the legs down/on the run
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