Well, this was an awkward one. By the time I sat down with Kit Harington at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to talk about The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, we both knew the movie was a mess. Director/co-writer Xavier Dolan had written the script numerous times, shot and then re-shot it, and edited it for, literally, years. (It’s finally being released on Friday.)
Dolan had set out to make – as far as I can tell – a meditation on which sides of ourselves we show to the world, and when, using the secretly gay celebrity Donovan (Harington) as his example; and a movie about how the entertainment industry conspires to keep gay actors in the closet; and a story about a boy named Rupert (Jacob Tremblay, playing a younger version of Dolan himself) who falls into a letter-writing relationship with Donovan, accidentally causing the actor to be labelled a pedophile; and a parallel story about Donovan’s and Rupert’s demanding mommies (Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, respectively); and then he’d mashed them together and shoehorned them into a framing device featuring the now-grown Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) telling his story to a reluctant celebrity reporter (Thandie Newton). It was a case of much too much adding up to nothing much at all.
So if the circumstance of my interview with Harington had been different – if it hadn’t been during TIFF; if the clock hadn’t been ticking so insistently; if other reporters weren’t lined up in the hall for their turns with Jon Snow; if there hadn’t been so many handlers handling things so handily – I might have ventured a question about films that swing and miss, and we might have had an interesting conversation about artistic disappointment.
Instead, we behaved like two people sitting beside each other at a lunch counter gamely making polite conversation and maintaining studious eye contact even though we’ve both spilled soup all down our shirts.
Harington’s eyes are espresso-bean brown, and although his Jon Snow curls, expertly groomed stubble and manly cloaks of fur conspired to make him a bit more fantastically dreamy on Game of Thrones, in person, he is quite handsome enough for any one human being to be. Now 32, he possesses an innate modesty and graciousness, a sense of his extreme good fortune, that a lineage of British baronets, coupled with a world-class education, polished with a once-in-a-lifetime hit TV show that made him one of the highest-paid actors on the planet, can instill. “I’ve had a few months off, so I may gabble a bit,” was how he began, and well, I mean, aww.
At this point, he was newly married to Rose Leslie, his GoT co-star, and still months away from checking himself into a wellness retreat in the United States, reportedly to “work on some personal issues.” But he admitted that “there is much in the character of Donovan that is close to my life."
“You see Donovan get into a car after a premiere, and he takes off his suit, puts on his hoodie,” Harington says. “He puts up his hood and he’s hiding. All of that, I’ve done. I do those red carpets, and I’ve got hundreds of flashbulbs flashing at me, and people screaming for autographs, and everything is very focused on me. Afterwards, I want to shepherd myself away and crawl into bed and be looked at by no one.”
Harington’s family were theatregoers and he grew up awed by “people who put themselves on the line in public,” including Ben Whishaw, whom he saw in Hamlet in 2004. Even before graduating from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama in 2008, Harington had landed a role in the National Theatre’s production of War Horse. But he wasn’t prepared for the fame bit.
“Some actors relish it,” he says. “They step out of the car and it’s, ‘Yes. I’ve arrived. This is how it’s meant to be.’ I admire those people; they’re generous about being looked at. But I find it weird. I’ve had a long, difficult relationship with owning that. I get out of the car and sort of apologize for even being there. It took a long time for me to accept that I am actor and not just some charlatan.” (Later, when I ask him why Jon Snow was such a fan favourite, he replies, “He’s a good, un-narcissistic, unselfish person.”)
For protection, Harington says, he builds a fame-wall around himself: “I have a persona I get out of the car with. I’m polite, but I’m not Kit. I’m not the me who walks home and says hello to my wife. That’s what I found fascinating about John F. Donovan. It’s about the different facets of a person’s life, which bits they choose to show and which they choose to hide.”
Harington makes those choices when talking about Dolan, too. He praises the director’s previous films, especially Mommy and Laurence Anyways. He calls Dolan’s attention to detail “exhausting and incredibly frustrating, but it makes for brilliant movies.
“The costumes!” he continues. “I can’t tell you how many different costume changes I had. In the morning, Xavier would put five looks together, and then on set he’d go, ‘Mmm, no,’ and we’d go do another fitting. Everything was designed by him, everything was bigger than life. Xavier is blessed with that thing some directors have, obsession.
“There are beautiful shots in this, which I will cherish going forward in my career, moments I really loved,” he finishes. But notice his choice of words: Shots. Moments.
“Some people told Xavier that the message of Donovan” – that it’s impossible to be an openly gay actor in Superheroes-Only Hollywood – “doesn’t matter anymore,” Harington says. “But neither Xavier nor I think that’s changed. No matter who you are, everyone has something to hide. That’s why the exposure of fame is taxing on your soul, because of the constant worries about your private life being dug up. There is no one who doesn’t have a shadow, dark things they wouldn’t want you to know. Anyone who tells you they don’t is lying.”
So? Harington’s secrets? “They will never, never see the light of day,” he says, kidding but not kidding.
Our time is nearly up. We’ve both done pretty well, I think, talking about this movie without talking about oy, this movie. So I give us both a break – I ask what makes him happy.
“I’ve just started growing vegetables,” he replies. “I’ve got a place in Suffolk” – he does not call it a 15th-century home that cost £1.75-million – “with my own garden and my own greenhouse.”
I ask what he grows. “I grow tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet potatoes,” he says. “I grow carrots, spring onions, onions, garlic. I grow runner beans, green beans, beet root.” He smiles, and finally I feel I’m seeing, if not the real Harington, at least a more real facet.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan opens Aug. 23