Game of Thrones Kit Harington cover story: Dead Man Talking
Kit Harington is ready to talk. The Game of Thrones star is finally prepared to tell his story, the real one, after nearly two years of giving a public and private performance that transcended all the usual boundaries of acting to protect TV’s biggest spoiler. Harington is finished playing dead.
As fans of HBO’s Emmy-winning hit now realize, Harington’s character Jon Snow came back to life at the end of the second episode of season 6, resurrected by the sorceress Melisandre. The reveal capped 10 months of worldwide speculation following Snow’s murder at the hands of his Night’s Watch brothers in last year’s finale. “Is Jon Snow dead?” became pop culture’s biggest burning question, the 21st-century version of “Who Shot J.R.?,” with millions of fans, the media, and even the President of the United States wondering if the heroic Stark bastard had truly perished. Actors typically only have to perform on camera. Harington played a role that involved much of his personal life. He had to deceive not only his fans, friends, and the press, but even his fellow castmates — for many months they didn’t know Snow’s true fate either. And what started as a minor creative misdirect, one that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss were skeptical viewers would ever believe, evolved into a greater phenomenon than anyone could have predicted.
The tale of Jon Snow’s death and rebirth begins five years ago. George R.R. Martin’s most recent A Song of Ice and Fire novel, A Dance With Dragons, concluded with Snow’s demise in a scene similar to the final moments of the show’s fifth-season closer. In interviews, Martin teased that the character wasn’t necessarily gone. But with the series’ narrative increasingly veering from the novels (and racking up a higher body count), nobody except Martin and the producers knew the show’s plan for handling Snow’s story line.
In the summer of 2014, Harington received the scripts for season 5 a couple of weeks before production started. The finale ended with this description: “The brothers retreat, leaving Jon to die alone on the ground, bleeding out. The light goes out of his open eyes as we fade on season 5.” That sounded awfully permanent.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you feel when you read the scene where Jon was killed off?
KIT HARINGTON: I thought that would have been an awful way to go. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Thrones. I don’t mind the idea of dying in this series, I just felt like his journey wasn’t done.
EW: Didn’t you want to call up the producers and ask, “Hey, am I really dead?”
KH: I never ask them anything.
KH: I won’t ask. And I think they left me hanging for a bit just to see if I would ask.
EW: When did you find out the truth?
KH: It was one of the first days after we started filming [season 5]. I was with the whole cast, doing the pessimistic thing. I was saying, “I really think this is it, I think I’m dead. It’s been a great ride.” And they were like, “No, f—off, you’re not!” And then we started theorizing…
Ever since Snow died in Martin’s book, theories have circulated about how he might return. That a Red Priest like Melisandre might revive him was the most popular, but there were more exotic ideas as well. Jon could “warg” into his direwolf, Ghost, like Bran has done with his direwolf. Or he might turn into an undead creature — just as Catelyn Stark became the vengeful Lady Stoneheart in the novels. “I didn’t know if I’d be recast as a CGI wolf and I’d just be a voice-over, and I thought that would be really s—,” Harington says. “Or would I be dead as a zombie guy, and that would be s—as well.”
There was one loose thread that gave Harington hope that Snow would continue in some form: Ned Stark’s bastard son never learned his mother’s identity. His character’s parentage has been one of the biggest mysteries hanging over the show’s mythology. “Why would there be this whole arc about your mother if that was never going to be relevant information because you died before finding out?” he wondered.
And then, between camera setups, Benioff and Weiss asked Harington to go for a walk.
Harington recalls feeling nervous. He knew what this conversation was about, as did everybody else on the set — this is what an actor’s dismissal looks like. But for months afterward, only the three of them would know what was truly said.
Once certain nobody was within earshot, Harington says Benioff told him this: “Me and Dan, we know this, a couple producers know this, and George knows this. Now you’re going to know this — and you can’t tell anybody. Not your mom, not your dad, not your family — not anybody. You can’t tell anybody.”
“Okay,” Harington said.
“You are back next season,” the producer told him. “You are alive. Melisandre brings you back. And you’ve got a s—load to do next season. You’re going to be doing a lot.”
Harington felt a surge of relief. “I was incredibly happy,” he recalls.
As Harington rejoined his castmates, however, something shifted. “This is a group of people who are my family, and they have been for the last six years,” he says.
Harington forced himself to put on a downcast face. And he began an impromptu performance that he would have to repeat, over and over again.
EW: What did you say?
KH: I went back into the room with all the Night’s Watch guys. Going in, knowing this thing, they had all seen me go on this walk. And I had to say, “Yeah, I’m dead.” I had to lie to all my friends.
EW: What was that like for you?
KH: At first I thought I would find it fun. This will be a fun game. But I had to lie to a lot of close friends and cast members and crew. I don’t like lying. The longer it went, the more I felt like I was betraying them.
EW: You literally didn’t tell your family?
KH: I couldn’t keep it from them — my mum, dad, and brother. I just said, “I am still in Thrones, but don’t tell anyone.” Because otherwise what you’re saying to your family is, financially, “This is where the money stops from Thrones.”
EW: What about your girlfriend, Rose Leslie, who played Ygritte?
KH: I told her from early on. In fact, Dan said to David, “He’s going to tell Rose, isn’t he?” She was allowed to know.
EW: And the rest of the cast?
KH: At the end of making season 5, genuinely no one knew. They had all been told I was dead…
News of Harington’s dismissal spread through the sprawling cast, provoking wildly different responses.
Liam Cunningham, who plays Ser Davos Seaworth and is close to Harington, didn’t believe he was really exiting for a second. “He told me to f—off from the start,” Harington recalls.
Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth, had suspicions as well. “I didn’t think they would kill that character, even though Kit did a remarkable job of going around saying, ‘It’s my last season, I’ll miss you all so much,’ ” she says. “I said, ‘I don’t buy it, but out of respect for you, I’ll miss seeing you as well.’ When you have an actor like Kit Harington, who’s as sensational and as visually arresting as him, that’s something you don’t get rid of too quickly.”
Others bought the fib completely. Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa Stark, says Harington pulled her aside one night to personally break the news. “He was like, ‘Look, this is it, I’m done,’ ” she recalls. “I thought he genuinely thought that [at the time]. I don’t know if he was bulls—ting me or not. He probably was.”
Harington allows himself a smile at that one. “Sophie Turner, bless her, wrote me a really long letter about how much she loved working with me — and I still got it. That made me chuckle. She bought it hook, line, and sinker.”
The behind-the-scenes charade came to a head on the set of the season 5 finale. An actor’s last day can be highly emotional. There are speeches, hugs, drinks, and gifts. For Harington, the event meant taking his “Jon Snow is dead” deception to a whole new level of showmanship, one that he found supremely uncomfortable. He would later call that night “one of my worst experiences on Thrones.”
Director David Nutter was running the set. Harington wasn’t sure if Nutter was in on the ruse, but didn’t dare ask, given the showrunners’ stern warning. As it turns out, the director had no clue Snow was coming back until later. “All I was told is ‘Jon Snow is dead,’ ” Nutter says. “It was very clear.” So Nutter filmed Snow’s death with every bit of finality he could muster, rousing the actors who played mutineers by reading them the Night’s Watch creed before they plunged their knives into their Lord Commander’s chest.
The writers could have scripted Snow’s killing with more ambiguity, but as supervising producer Bryan Cogman explains, “It seemed cheap to have it end with ‘Is he dead or isn’t he?’ You could have done a Princess Bride thing — he’s ‘mostly dead,’ he’s just barely dead. But the show has shown a precedent for the Lord of Light resurrecting a dead person before. So if we’re going to kill him, we’re going to really kill him. The decision was made to make it explicitly clear he was killed.”
When filming wrapped, Nutter announced to the cast and crew that this was Kit Harington’s final day on the show. Then he called up the actor to address the crowd.
“I had to do a fake goodbye speech,” Harington says. “It was awful. It was like being at my own funeral.”
It’s helpful to understand a couple of things about Harington here. Like most performers, he seeks attention. He landed the starring role in the London stage adaptation of War Horse while still in drama school. But unlike some actors, he dreads feeling inauthentic. In person, he comes across as thoughtful, soft-spoken, and earnest, and is often rather hard on himself. “I’m not a showman,” Harington says. “I’m not a natural salesman. I’m not good at that. I’m kind of a bumbling English buffoon at times. I’ve always felt introverted in many ways, I think that’s why there was something [the producers] liked about me for Jon Snow.” A strong theatrical performance doesn’t feel like a lie, it feels like truth. So giving a fake emotional farewell to the Thrones cast and crew felt, to Harington, like the opposite of what acting is supposed to be about. He went from recently pretending on camera that his friends were stabbing him in the heart to needlessly breaking their hearts for real.
Nutter called the speech “heartfelt and quite powerful.” Harington told the cast and crew how he had made so many valuable friendships, noted how much he cared for them, and regretted how this part of his life would now be empty.
“It was the worst acting I’ve ever done, and that’s saying something,” Harington says of his speech. “I couldn’t do a big weepy ‘I love you.’ Some of them bought it, some didn’t.”
EW: And after the speech?
KH: I got the f—out.
EW: What was hardest about that?
KH: There are a lot of story lines that revolve around Jon. If you’re turning to other people whose story lines depend on yours and you say, “I’m not in it,” then you’re also telling them they’re not in it — and that I wasn’t comfortable with. I had to be honest with some people and say, “I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s not what it seems.” I did end up letting people in, slowly.
EW: One of the exit interviews you gave was with EW, and I remember pressing you about that night, like asking what the producers got you for a going-away present.
KH: And then I have to really start stringing you along, which I’m not comfortable with. I care about the show. I don’t want spoilers. But at the same time, the first thing I said to [my publicist] is: “Don’t put me in front of cameras, don’t put me in interview situations.” I think it’s better I lay very low rather than outright lying, or be put in situations where people are going to ask tricky questions where I won’t be able to talk openly without telling a real stinker.
EW: What was your reaction to the way fans and the media erupted after the finale?
KH: I was most worried people weren’t going to buy it. Or they were going to watch it and go, “Meh, who cares? It’s not as sad as the Red Wedding. We don’t love you as much as those characters.” There’s something inside you where you want them to be sad. I wanted them to believe that I’m dead. And for the most part, a lot of them did. They had a love for the character, and they believed he could be gone. I was glad it had the impact that we aimed for.
Jon Snow died June 14, 2015. HBO’s overnight ratings were the biggest in the show’s history, with 8.1 million watching. But as a tidal wave of fandom grief arose, a new cycle of misdirection began. This time, the deception was public-facing as Harington, the producers, the cast and crew, and even HBO executives began to get The Question. Even noted Thrones fan President Obama asked. When Nutter attended a fund-raiser at producer Chuck Lorre’s house last summer, he said the president inquired, “You didn’t kill Jon Snow, did you?” Nutter dutifully replied, “He’s dead.” (Wondered Weiss later: “If Obama really wanted to know, couldn’t he just ask the CIA?”)
But nobody had a high-wire moment that could have gone more awry than HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. The executive was one of the show’s early supporters, ordering the series despite industry skepticism about whether an expensive adult fantasy series could draw a large audience. Yet when Lombardo read the season 5 finale script, he didn’t know Snow was going to return either. “I responded as the fans did — with grief and shock,” Lombardo says.
A few days later, Benioff and Weiss phoned Lombardo, “with a little glee,” to loop him in. The showrunners also asked the executive for a favor: Can HBO help maintain the illusion Snow was truly gone?
At the time, the request didn’t seem like a big deal.
“It’s one thing to ask for that, hypothetically, before the world has experienced it,” Lombardo says. “You go, ‘Okay, we can do that.’ We’ve killed off main characters before. But the death of Jon Snow resonated. I haven’t been in a meeting or a dinner party without people asking me about Jon Snow. It’s been very challenging to navigate the landscape and to be honest and forthright with friends and people I respect.”
At the Television Critics Association’s press tour in Beverly Hills last summer, Lombardo stood before 150 reporters for a press conference. A hand went up, and the reporter asked: “I just want to know… Is Jon Snow dead?”
Lombardo maintained a poker face, but secretly he was relieved at the reporter’s phrasing.
“Dead is dead is dead is dead,” Lombardo said. “Yes. Everything I’ve seen, heard, and read, Jon Snow is indeed dead.”
Cunningham puts it best: “Everyone is f—ing asking the wrong question! ‘Is Jon Snow dead’? Yes, he’s dead! The question is: ‘Is he going to stay dead.'”
The Thrones team reasoned they could tell the world Jon Snow is dead with “an honest heart,” as Arya actress Maisie Williams told us, since the character spends the first two episodes deceased. Whether Jon Snow would remain dead, well… “Nobody asked me that question,” Lombardo says.
For the producers, determining how much time Jon Snow would spend as a lifeless corpse provoked some discussion. “There was some talk about putting the resurrection at the end of the first episode because it’s such a great premiere ender,” says writer Dave Hill. “But Bryan made a great point — we really want to milk Jon Snow’s death, otherwise he’s only been dead for 50 minutes. We wanted to let his death sink in and let the other characters play that emotion. At the same time, his body would start to decompose, and storywise we had a lot of pressing action that takes place with Jon Snow this season, so we didn’t just want him lying on a table for three episodes. Plus, Kit probably would have murdered us!”
When the scripts for season 6 started going out last summer to the cast — all electronic for the first time, nothing on paper — Harington realized the show-runners weren’t kidding about his postresurrection workload. His role was huge, with more shooting days than ever before. Yet the name “Jon Snow” didn’t appear anywhere. Instead a new name was used throughout production: “LC,” which stood for “Lord Commander.” The showrunners made it clear that nobody was allowed to say “Jon Snow,” including them. Still, how could the sprawling, globe-trotting production possibly keep Harington’s role a secret?
“Honestly, we were hoping the finale would air and we’d get a few weeks [of uncertainty] out of it,” Benioff says. “Everybody walks around with a camera now. We knew once Kit starting flying back to Belfast, people are going to take pictures.”
As it turned out, the deception held longer than any of them had predicted.
EW: You cut your hair shorter after the finale, which caused a stir.
KH: I wanted to sell it a bit more. I know this hairstyle is very synonymous with the character. I wanted to appear with shorter hair straightaway so it would sell the lie.
EW: By saying you were off the show, were you worried that some would later be upset you didn’t tell the truth?
KH: I guess. People are like, “Are you dead?” But do you really want me to tell you? If I turn around and say, “Yes, I’m alive, I get brought back by Melisandre at the end of episode 2,” they would have gone, “No, shut the f—up!” It’s a rhetorical question they’re asking.
EW: For the first few months of the production, I heard you tried to stay indoors as much as possible.
KH: I was put into a different apartment. But they couldn’t put me on a private jet back and forth to Belfast. I’d go stir-crazy if I tried to stay in all the time. We care very much, but we also realize this is not life or death.
Sure enough, as season 6 started filming, Harington was quickly spotted. Speculation ran the gamut about what he was doing on set, so the actor started telling interviewers he was there to play Snow’s corpse. Still, fans were relentless.
“It was dangerous to have dinner with Kit anywhere,” says Melisandre actress Carice van Houten. “The guy has to eat and live, but we tried our best to hide him.”
Harington’s costars endured fan pressure too. Owen Teale, whose Ser Alliser Thorne plunged the first blade into Snow, was startled one night when a drunken man wielding a knife rushed at him. “Then he offered me the handle and said, ‘Oh, no-no-no! I just want a photo — you hold the knife to me,’ ” Teale says. “I got used to that. Fans want me to look very mean for a second and say, ‘For the watch…’ ”
Midway through the shoot, the leak producers feared most finally happened: A fan snapped a distant photo of Harington, in costume, back in action. Surely the ruse was up, right? “If you look around online you’re going to see Kit in a field, with a sword in his hand, surrounded by 300 extras, and you’re going to say he’s probably not dead,” Weiss says. “Unless we’re shooting a weirdly expensive flashback sequence to a battle that Jon was never in. Thankfully, the vast majority of people don’t troll around online looking for things that are going to f—up their viewing experience. So there [were] still large numbers of people wondering, ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ ”
That details of Snow’s resurrection itself didn’t leak was “kind of incredible,” marvels director Jeremy Podeswa, who filmed the first two episodes of season 6. Podeswa credits the showrunners for scripting a convincing scenario where Snow’s corpse is on a table in the Lord Commander’s office while his supporters are under siege from Night’s Watch mutineers outside. “The longer you see him lying on the table, the more you think he’s really not coming back and maybe this is it,” Podeswa says. “And with the Night’s Watch fighting for retribution over what’s been done to him, it’s important to have a visual representation [of the crime] to anchor the story.”
For the resurrection sequence, Snow lay naked on the table while Melisandre washed his body. “It took forever to resurrect him, forever!” says van Houten. “It was such an important scene, we shot it from so many angles. I think I washed his body 50 times. There would be a lot of people who would be very jealous.”
Harington had no complaints. His days on the Thrones set usually involve exhausting action scenes in freezing cold. “It was very weird, like a teenage boy’s wet dream: You’re laying there naked and Carice van Houten is washing you,” he says. “It was such an easy two episodes, I loved it.”
The actor had one startling moment, however. Harington fell asleep on the table, then woke up in the middle of a scene. For a minute, his show life and real life seemed more blurred than ever. “You know how terrifying it is when you wake up and you don’t know where you are?” Harington says. “Imagine waking up in the Game of Thrones world. It’s like a nightmare.”
But on the series, the Jon Snow who wakes up has changed dramatically.
EW: How does death change Jon Snow?
KH: At first I was worried that he’ll wake up and he’s the same, back to normal — then there’s no point in that death. He needs to change. There’s a brilliant line when Melisandre asks: “What did you see?” And he says: “Nothing, there was nothing at all.” That cuts right to our deepest fear, that there’s nothing after death. And that’s the most important line in the whole season for me. Jon’s never been afraid of death, and that’s made him a strong and honorable person. He realizes something about his life now: He has to live it, because that’s all there is. He’s been over the line and there’s nothing there. And that changes him. It literally puts the fear of God into him. He doesn’t want to die ever again. But if he does, he doesn’t want to be brought back.
EW: How big a season is this for Jon moving forward?
KH: It’s the biggest season for him so far. There’s one episode this season, which is Jon’s story, that’s the most epic episode we’ve done.
EW: And how relieved will you be when this all goes public?
KH: I’m very happy this is going to be out in the open. It’s nice in Thrones to be the center of attention for a whole off-season. But at the same time, I’d rather not do it again…. I’d like to officially be a part of Thrones again.
Which means Harington can get back to focusing on his real passion: pouring every ounce of energy into playing Jon Snow, a devotion we witnessed firsthand while visiting the Thrones set in Northern Ireland during the making of season 6.
In a muddy field, Jon Snow is fighting a dozen men. His costume has changed (“Purely for merchandising—now everybody has to buy a different doll,” he jokes), and his wild hair is partly pinned up, out of the way, almost like a samurai. The actor is a whirlwind. Harington swings his sword this way, that way, stepping and spinning, ducking and stabbing, delivering a complex series of fight moves faster than you would think is possible. And as exhausting as this is, Harington always wants one more take.
“He’s become phenomenal at it,” Benioff says. “There’s something great about watching Kit do a 60-second take where he’s actually doing all the moves.” Weiss drily agrees: “He might actually be of serious value in a medieval army.”
Harington takes the physical part of his job as seriously as he does protecting the show’s secrets. He’s able to pick up a 14-beat fight in minutes, and when he briefly removes his shirt he reveals an intricately chiseled physique. (Cunningham quips, “He’s just doing that to annoy the rest of us.”) Harington will later share a photo of his bathtub full of brown water from all the dirt that comes off him after a day of battle.
Yet even the toughest heroes can’t handle dozens of enemies by themselves. During one scene, Jon Snow is overwhelmed, and he goes down swinging. Fighters pile atop him. Harington is pressed into thick, soupy mud and crawling bugs. Jon Snow came back from the dead once, but if he perishes again, one shouldn’t expect him to be saved a second time.
Harington refuses to say his safe word (“banana”) to stop the pummeling. But when the scene ends, he seems more winded than usual. The Game of Thrones star staggers away, giving a weary smile: ” ‘Become an actor,’ they said…”
HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.