Game of Thrones is a show with massive scope and reach, which means that for every character story playing out on the screen, there's an actor's story playing out behind it. In the case of Kit Harington, it's the story of an actor who started as part of the show's ensemble, and came to face tremendous pressure as he shifted into position as one of its clear stars.
Harington, who plays Jon Snow in the HBO megahit, began work on Game of Thrones years ago, just like many of the other young actors in the ensemble: As a relative newcomer about to get international exposure thanks to an acclaimed new TV series. Then Game of Thrones became the biggest things on television, and while other actors got to continue being part of the ensemble, Harington's role — along with that of fellow young star Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen — began to morph into something bigger.
Game of Thrones fans had theorized since well before the show began airing, thanks to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels, that there was something special about Jon Snow, and at the end of the show's fifth season, elements moved into place to make that clear.
At the end of Season 5, Jon Snow died after he was ambushed by rebellious members of the Night's Watch who were done with his leadership. Then, not long into Season 6, he was resurrected by Melisandre (Carice van Houten), a rarity on a show where death is often swift and final, because she believed he still had a role to play in the saga.
Now, two seasons later, Jon is the "Ice" in Ice and Fire, paired with Daenerys as the characters around him learn of his secret Targaryen heritage and other characters whisper about a prophecy that could be about one or both of them. For many Thrones fans he has become the most vital character in the series, and for many others he's at least top two. He was already a star thanks to the show, but the past two seasons have made Jon — and by extension Harington, with his black curls and earnest eyes — an icon.
At first, it was a lot for Harington to take, particularly in the year between Jon's death and resurrection, when everyone from Stephen Colbert to random people on the street to President Obama wanted to know his character's fate.
“When you become the cliffhanger of a TV show, and a TV show probably at the height of its power, the focus on you is f***ing terrifying,” Harington said in a lengthy new interview with Variety. “You get people shouting at you on the street, ‘Are you dead?’ At the same time you have to have this appearance. All of your neuroses — and I’m as neurotic as any actor — get heightened with that level of focus.”
Earlier in the same interview, Harington discussed reading reviews of the series (which he no longer does) in the first three seasons that frequently singled him out as "the boring Jon Snow." Then the focus shifted, and as Jon's arc gained more weight, Harington got more and more of the spotlight. Even as the past criticisms seemed to melt away, though, the pressure was enough to lead him to seek help.
“It wasn’t a very good time in my life,” he said. “I felt I had to feel that I was the most fortunate person in the world, when actually, I felt very vulnerable. I had a shaky time in my life around there — like I think a lot of people do in their 20s. That was a time when I started therapy, and started talking to people. I had felt very unsafe, and I wasn’t talking to anyone. I had to feel very grateful for what I have, but I felt incredibly concerned about whether I could even f***ing act.”
Now Harington is done with Game of Thrones, and looking forward to new projects (ones in which he can plays "characters who are deeply flawed"), but the show's massive success is still not without its difficulties. Harington knows he'll always be Jon Snow to some fans, no matter what he does in the long career he seems to have ahead of him. Even though he was eager to move on, though, taking off that long fur cloak (and trimming those famous curls) for the last time still felt like losing something.
"For a long time toward the end of Thrones, I felt like I wanted to be a new person but I was stuck in this shape," he said. “I took off the costume, and it felt like my skin was being peeled away. I was very emotional. It felt like someone was shedding me of something.”
Game of Thrones returns Apr. 14 on HBO.