"I've had marriage proposals from my Game of Thrones fans"
Kit Harington has broken out of his warrior furs to take on Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. But will it lead to as much attention as his most famous role?
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 Northern Ireland-shot 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'."
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," 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 f***, everyone's going to forget who I am, I'm never going to work again'."
- Testament of Youth is in cinemas now. Season Five of Game of Thrones is due to air this year