When the whole thing comes to a presumably dramatic halt on Sunday, May 19—the last gasp of what we once called “appointment television”?—Game of Thrones’ tale of magic, broadswords, and power politics will have played out over eight seasons and seventy-three episodes. If this were a movie to be watched in a single viewing, you would be stuck in your seat for three days. The number of credited cast members reached 635 through season 7, by IMDb’s reckoning—and that’s not including hundreds, if not thousands, of extras. Shot on locations and in studios across three continents and ten countries, the series is one of the most expansive physical productions ever mounted, with a budget that Variety claims has grown to $15 million per episode, a fiscal height rarely scaled by TV (and roughly 50 percent more than the budgets for only-just-lavish-enough competitors Westworld and The Crown). A more visceral statistic: The show, in its search for muck-and-mire medieval authenticity, has used enough prop mud to float the Titanic.
I made that last bit up—I don’t think there’s even such a thing as prop mud. (Game of Thrones uses the real thing.) But it feels true, as the saying goes, and I do believe it is fair to claim that Game of Thrones is the most . . . abundant narrative in the history of filmed entertainment, unless you count soap operas and telenovelas (and maybe you should). For certain, though, it makes the likes of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter saga feel as spartan as works by Margaret Wise Brown. Game of Thrones is so sprawling it refuses even to have a true central character, no Frodo or Harry, only a shrinking constellation of protagonists and villains.
But maybe more equal than most is Kit Harington’s Jon Snow, the closest thing the show has to a conventional hero: bighearted, steadfast, seemingly humble-born but with world-saving destiny slowly thrust upon him. Moreover—and unlike Frodo and Harry—Jon Snow is handsome in a grand, Byronic manner, windswept and untamed. You could imagine him moonlighting in a Brontë adaptation, or selling fancy cars in arty commercials, as Harington has done (for Infiniti).
The actor, too, has had pop-cultural destiny thrust upon him. He started from a good place, born into an English family with posh lineage and graduating from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. But filming the Game of Thrones pilot in 2009, when he was twenty-one, was the first time Harington had acted in front of a professional camera. He has devoted much of the past decade to the show, growing into the role as he grew into adulthood—and as the show itself grew from cult hit to global phenomenon. He was lucky: Not only has his character not (yet?) been killed off, but he met his wife of less than a year on the show, Rose Leslie, the Scottish actress who played a love interest of Jon Snow’s, Ygritte, a “wildling” who was, alas, killed off. (Arrow in the back, season 4, episode 9.)
Harington and I met over tea at an apartment he and Leslie were sharing in downtown Manhattan while she finished up work on the third season of the CBS All Access legal drama The Good Fight and he took a breather following four months spent doing a play in London (True West). Shorter of hair and trimmer of beard than on TV, his civilian speaking voice closer to the King’s English than Jon Snow’s burly northern accent, he wanted to reflect on his decade as a key part of such an unprecedentedly complicated work of pop culture—the friendships, the challenges, the collaborations, the artistry, the horrendous hours, and, indeed, the mud. With the aid of a well-curated selection of photos from his iPhone, reproduced here, that’s what he did.
KIT HARINGTON: This picture was taken just after the very first table read of the pilot for Game of Thrones—the pilot that no one saw. That was a complete disaster that meant the show nearly never got made. [The pilot was rewritten and substantially reshot with much of the same cast but a few key changes; most notably, Emilia Clarke was cast as Daenerys Targaryen.] What’s happened here is that Richard [Robb Stark], Alfie [Theon Greyjoy], and I all met for the first time at that table read. We were completely fresh off the boat. This was a huge job for us: a pilot for HBO. American TV. That was massive. I remember it was very, very exciting. We left the table read, where we’d just read with Sean Bean [who played Ned Stark, beheaded toward the end of the first season]. We’d met Sophie Turner [Sansa Stark], Maisie Williams [Arya Stark], and Isaac Hempstead-Wright [Bran Stark] that day, and they were just these tiny, tiny little kids. I remember Isaac looked like a puppy—he was just so small—and they came running up and they were very excited. I remember feeling like an adult then, but looking back, I was just a kid.
BRUCE HANDY: The picture looks like a souvenir.
Alfie, Richard, and I went to the Wheel of Belfast. It was that time when every city had to have a huge Ferris wheel. We were almost like kids ourselves, going on this big wheel and obviously having this souvenir photo taken. It’s just remarkable looking at it now and thinking we had no idea what was going to happen with the show. We were just young actors happy to be working—literally a world-at-your-feet sort of thing but no expectations from it.
That was the start of a very close friendship between us, because I think we looked around the room at the table read and went, “You’re a young lad. You’re a young lad. You’re a young lad.” We were the young lads of the show. For about three years after that [until Robb Stark was killed toward the end of the third season in the famous Red Wedding episode] we were inseparable. You know, we were best, best mates. And we still are.
Kristofer has one of the most amazing faces ever. I think he looks like an Arctic explorer in this. He’s just wonderfully eccentric and became a very, very good friend.
What [executive producers] David Benioff and Dan Weiss would do was bring in a new character and see what the actor was doing with it, and depending on whether they liked what the actor was doing, the actor might continue on the show a bit. Kristofer’s a perfect example. Tormund could have been one of those flitting characters who came in and went. But David and Dan loved what Kristofer did with Tormund.
Kristofer is Tormund. He’s big and fun and funny, and he’ll give you a bear hug and nearly crush your ribs. What David and Dan like is when someone’s a nice person and fits in well.
Speaking of fitting in, you told me the cast spent a lot of evenings together in the bar of your Belfast hotel, the Fitzwilliam.
It was like our common room! That, for me, is what a lot of making Thrones was—bar culture. A lot of jobs, everyone goes back to their apartments at the end of the day. They have their lives and they have their families and they have their girlfriends or boyfriends back home. They sort of isolate. That’s fine. Lots of jobs are like that.
But if Thrones had been like that, it wouldn’t have been what it was. I think part of what made it successful was the fact that we got on like a family. Everyone who came in was welcomed into the family. No one was the lead of that family—it was an ensemble. We were just genuinely happy in one another’s company. We made each other laugh. We cared for each other. We picked someone up if they fell. Look, over ten years of anyone’s life, family members die, people have breakdowns, shit gets real in people’s lives. All of that can be accentuated in this bottled environment of being on a famous TV show. And sometimes the only people who can guide you through those problems are the people who also know what it’s like to be on a famous TV show.
So the story behind this one is that it was season 5, when John Bradley, as Samwell Tarly, leaves the Wall and goes off to the Citadel, and me and Hannah Murray, who plays Gilly [Samwell’s love interest], decided to pull a prank on John, because obviously he’d be getting a new costume. And so we said to the costume people, “Can you just mock up the most ridiculous outfit you can possibly come up with that could still be feasible? Like it can’t be too wild, because you won’t believe it—but just about feasible.” And they came up with this, which was just so perfect.
The amount of effort and time that’s gone into that, just for a joke, is brilliant. But if you look at John’s face in that, he’s so upset and angry and he’s totally bought it. I was expecting a text off him straightaway saying, “What the fuck have they done with my costume?” And I didn’t get anything, and I turned to Hannah and I was like, “I think we’ve genuinely upset him.” We got a report back from the costume designer saying that he completely bought it.
How long did he have to wait until he found out he’d been pranked?
Well, we left it. I was like, “Let’s see if he has to call his agents or how far this goes.” And he was so silent and he got on set, and I think they even hung it up in his trailer for his first day before they broke it to him. And then I still didn’t hear from him and I thought I’d actually pissed him off. I asked him afterward, and he was like, “I was never going to tell anybody about that.”
But it’s his facial expression in this. He looks so upset. It’s just—it just gives me so much joy.
We all started pranking one another a lot, and the thing was we all wanted to get David Benioff and Dan Weiss, ’cause they were the biggest pranksters. They were the ones that would really go hard on it. They’re so intelligent that they get bored and they start pranking actors. They pranked me a few times.
I’ve read that early on they gave you some fake script pages that made you think Jon Snow would be a burn victim with a horribly scarred face for most of the show.
That was pretty rough. It’s season 1, and you’re just kind of young and starting out. I rang my mum and was like, “Mum, they’re gonna cut my nose off! I’m gonna have a prosthetic nose for six years. Jeez, I’m going to be playing a character part now”—and all this stuff. I walked on set and I went up to Dan and was like, “Okay, I’ve become a burn victim?” And Dan was like, “Yeah, we just felt the character was getting a bit Harry Potter and we felt that you’re a bit pretty. . . .” And then I see David just pissing himself in the background.
This was taken in Spain, and I thought Emilia looked like, as the old saying goes, a million bucks. To me, in this photo, she screams fifties, sixties, Old Hollywood chic. And that’s why I took this snap, ’cause she sort of has a timeless quality to her.
Me, Rose, and Emilia have been best mates for years, but I never got to work with her until season 7. That’s a long time to be experiencing the same show and also the same kind of journey, me and Emilia, because we’ve followed the same path. We both came out of drama school and this was our first big show, and we became kind of the ice and fire of it all a bit—the two youngish leads, I guess. Probably the closest to what we were each experiencing was what the other person was experiencing, but then not to work with each other until season 7 and then walk on the same set. . . . I remember our first scene together was bizarre. We kind of looked at each other and tried not to laugh.
How did you become close if you weren’t working together? When did you see each other?
We would see each other at table reads, but our friendship was based around doing press and meeting each other at Comic-Con or hanging out outside of Thrones. But once the series got started, we were rarely in the same place at the same time. She was always filming abroad [on locations in Morocco, Croatia, and Malta], and I was always in Belfast.
I remember the first time I ever saw her. She came into the Fitzwilliam bar. I had been talking to Rich Madden at the bar and he went, “I’ve just met the new Daenerys. She’s gorgeous.” And I was like, “Really? I haven’t met her yet.” And then she came in and I saw her and was like, “Wow.” She takes your breath away when she walks into a room, Emilia.
I think we’re good mates because we, maybe more than anyone else, know what the other one’s going through a bit. I don’t mean to sound like we’re going through the worst thing in the world. But I think no one else other than Emilia
will know exactly what being on Thrones is like, the way we’re on Thrones.That’s really how we kind of bonded.
What’s behind the picture of you wearing the Daenerys wig?
This is just me fucking around. I just got bored one day and put it on. Quite often Dany’s wigs were lying around. If that picture says anything, it’s about how much of your time is spent in hair and makeup.
I took this selfie during the Battle of the Bastards [season 6’s biggest episode]. Just to give you an idea, we had six stages of dirt and blood, and I’m on about stage three at that point. And it was pretty uncomfortable. All of that stuff on my face is sticky blood, which is sugar based and attracts wasps and flies. I think I took that selfie just to go, “What the fuck am I in? I’m halfway through this and this is how messy I am.”
Miguel [Sapochnik, who directed the episode] wanted to get away from heroic Jon Snow. Jon turns a bit into a monster; he turns into this fucking ruined . . . [Searches for but can’t quite find an appropriately ruinous noun.] I think every time I walked on set, Miguel went, “More blood, more mud! More blood, more mud!” And so it was just building and building, and that picture was just me in my trailer going, “Fuck this.”
That sequence took two weeks to shoot. To give you a comparison, this year we have a battle that took six weeks.
Was the Battle of the Bastards filmed sequentially?
They had to. I mean, Thrones generally is not filmed sequentially at all. On Tuesday you might be filming a scene from episode 9, and on Wednesday you might be filming from episode 1. That was part of the test of Thrones, keeping your character’s journey very clear in your head, so you knew where’d you been and where you were going. So you weren’t just playing it generic. But the battle had to be in order for the most part because hair and makeup can’t go, “Right, we’ve got to clean him up to the beginning of the battle.” It doesn’t work like that.
The mud on my face here is makeup, but you get covered in real mud by the end of the day anyway. They’ll have things called mud slingers and mud cannons—they just shoot mud at you, so that’s always quite fun. I used to get in the bath at the end of the day, and it was fucking black with mud. You’re like, “Wow, that’s a hard day’s work.”
I don’t know what happens on other TV shows or other sets—I haven’t been on many. But on Thrones, the money put into it goes into the show. There weren’t many luxuries on Thrones, not for anyone. The actors obviously get a place to sit because they’re sitting around a lot, but it’s usually some crappy little cabin. You don’t get driven back [from the location] to your trailers. You get to sit there in a cold, wet, damp cabin all day and in these sodden, heavy costumes.
I’m going to do a quick bit of math. [Opens metric-conversion app on phone.] So my costume weighed thirty-three pounds, and you’d carry all of that on your shoulders all day. So thirty-three pounds for ten hours.
And if it’s wet or muddy, it’s heavier.
Yeah. And then you’ve got the sword, and that weighs two kilograms, which is another X number of pounds. [It’s four pounds and change.] Plus, I was in fucking high heels, because I’m short and they need me to look taller than other people, so I’m carrying fifty pounds in high heels. You’d have about a week or two where your body went into shock, going, I can’t, I’m knackered. But you just kind of get into it and your muscles build up, and it was actually quite a good workout every day. You didn’t need to go to the gym.
The producers and directors pushed us to our limits. They pushed themselves to their limits. But there’s something about the incessant nature of what we were doing that I think added to the show’s authenticity. This year, in season 8, everyone on the show is meant to look exhausted—and everyone was exhausted. I saw some of the costume and hair-and-makeup guys recently. I walked in and I looked at them and I was like, “You guys look great!” And they were like, “You look great!” And I was like, “It’s ’cause we were knackered!” At the end of last season, we were all gray, gray in the face. We were bone-tired, you know. But you push everyone to their limits and something brilliant happens.
This is from this season. I think he’s asleep there. That was during these long nights filming battles. There was just something so weird about chilling in the greenroom—a tent, basically—with the Night King, who’s making jokes, and the White Walkers around him, who are cracking up. To you it’s normal, but to anyone else walking into that room, it would be bizarre. It’s these bits I’ll miss most—the moments of “What the fuck is my job?”
When you see the White Walkers in the flesh, they look exactly like they do onscreen. They have the blue eyes, those contact lenses they put in—fucking uncomfortable. And because of the prosthetics, they can’t eat for hours. So they have to drink, like, mushed-up protein. Whenever I kind of got tired or pissed off with my costume or makeup, I’d look over at Vladimir, who plays the Night King, and think, Fucking hell. But they never moan, those boys. They’re all stuntmen. The actors moan, but they don’t moan.
You’d always love fighting with stuntmen and really hope that if you got an actor to fight with, they were good. The difference is the stuntmen will always pull their sword at the right time. They’ll be careful of you. They’ll know what they’re doing. Actors tend to act, and that can be dangerous in a fight. If you’ve got an actor who is throwing his sword so hard because he’s selling the scene, if you miss your block, it’s going to hit you in the face.
Did you take some pretty bad whacks over the years?
You get some whacks. But nothing on the stunt boys. I remember one stunt guy getting dragged off set with a broken leg, having fallen twenty feet. And all he was yelling was “Did we get the shot? Did we get the shot?”
We took this this season. I can’t remember what we were there for, whether it was a photo shoot or a costume thing, but it struck all of us that it was so rare that this many people were in one place at one time. So we were like, “Right. We need a family photo.”
This is obviously just a snippet of people who were on Thrones. I’d love to get a massive group of everyone who was on Thrones in one big photo. This is just what we ended up with, kind of the core group of us, minus for some reason Lena [Headey, who plays Cersei Lannister]. I don’t know why she’s not there. But it’s a really happy photo. I remember diving into the middle of it, trying to be center. The photo cuts a bit through all the shiny little faces we have to pull on press tours, and the people we are when we’re all dolled up for a premiere or a talk show or what have you. When we get on set together, a group like this, we’re fucking goofy and we play around. And I think you can tell from this photo how much everyone loves each other.
I haven’t got any little sisters or little brothers. I’ve got one older brother. But I guess if I were to say, “What’s the closest thing I have to a younger sibling?” it would be Isaac, Maisie, and Sophie, just from a shared experience. I mean, it’s a weird thing seeing someone like Sophie grow from thirteen, fourteen—I can’t remember how old she was when she started the show—to now, when she’s twenty-three years old and engaged. To see them all grow from little kids who’d come and badger me, Alfie, and Richard when we were smoking—they’d come and tell us not to smoke. Then, as the years went by, I caught Sophie or Maisie having a cigarette at fifteen years old, and I’m like, “Ah, I see!”
Sophie and Isaac grew past me! Each year, they’d come back and they’d just be taller. I’d go from looking down at them to looking up at them. Now they pat me on the head. I used to pat them on the head, ruffle their hair. Now Sophie ruffles my hair.
Each season you’d lose people. Richard died in season 3. End of season 4, Mark Stanley died, Josef Altin died. [Stanley and Altin played members of the Night’s Watch, Grenn and Pypar.] Each season you’d lose people; everything would be regenerated. People came in and went, came in and went. You forged new friendships and found new groups—you’d find yourself in a different bit of the story [with a less familiar cast]. Each season would shift. The plates would shift. You’d have wrap parties for those people who died. And you might see them again. You might not.
Did the cast develop a ritual for saying goodbye to “dead” friends?
Not really. Just a drink in the Fitzwilliam bar. Maybe a night out or something. A big dinner if they were a big part of it. That’s one of those really transient things about being an actor: You become really tight-knit with a family, and then you leave. You know, you fall in love with people. I don’t mean romantic love. But you fall in love with friends and then they’re gone. That happened all the way through Thrones.
It’s quite unique as an actor to say I was in it the whole way through, from season 1, or even the pilot, through season 8. I think there are only eight of us. I feel privileged to have worked my way through the whole thing.
How did you all find out about your fates in season 8?
They just sent us the scripts and we all read them. I didn’t read them until I got to the table read, ’cause I wanted just to listen to it. I thought, There’s no point in reading it when I can hear the actual actors speaking out loud. So yeah, that was the first time we knew what was happening this season and the fates of our characters. I think it hit everyone very personally around that table when a character didn’t make it. There was a kind of tear in people’s eyes, and we’d look up at the other actors and be like [mimes a salute] for, you know, whoever it was that had gone.
But I think you get tired of that [cast shuffling] after eight years. And that’s when the show needs to end. We’ve gone through as many variations of people as we can. The show’s gotten as big as it can. The in-house jokes that go around are getting slightly tired now. We need to end.
My final day of shooting, I felt fine . . . I felt fine . . . I felt fine. . . Then I went to do my last shots and started hyperventilating a bit. Then they called, “Wrap!” And I just fucking broke down. It was this onslaught of relief and grief about not being able to do this again. It wasn’t so much about Jon. It was about not being in this world, not getting to smell those smells, fight those fights, be with these people—the whole package.
But the weirdest bit was when we came off set and they started taking the costume off and it felt like being skinned. It felt like they were unceremoniously, for the last time, ripping off this character. I was still blubbering my tears. The costume girls were like, “Fucking, come on, get it together.” I’m being very actorly and crying. I remember going, “Wait, wait, wait!” And they wouldn’t. They just ripped. [Pantomimes sleeves being taken off.] I was like, “I need to say goodbye.” But it was too late. He was gone.
There was something about the costume being taken off me that was like, Oh, I don’t get to be him anymore. And I love him. I loved being him. I got a really good deal in this!
This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Esquire