When some people found out Kit Harington was playing Henry V, he says, they immediately thought of Jon Snow, the courageous moral heart of HBO’s giant hit Game of Thrones. It is still Harington’s defining role – and there are a few superficial similarities: the leadership issues, the swords, the battle; Henry’s “band of brothers” and the Night’s Watch brotherhood in the TV series. But resurrecting Snow is “definitely not what we’re going for”, says Harington, who is 35. Snow is honourable and selfless; Henry is not.
Presented at the Donmar Warehouse in London, it’s a modern staging in “an alternate universe, if the monarchy were still in charge”. Harington was “very keen not to do swords”, he says with a smile, though he seems relaxed about carrying the weight of Snow’s furs, nearly three years after the show ended. “There’s an element of me always trying to get away from that comparison, but at the same time, you’re not going to, so why try? A large portion of the audience coming to this will be fans of that show, and that’s a great thing.”
We speak over Zoom, Harington at his house in London, some good art on the walls. He met his wife, the actor Rose Leslie, on Game of Thrones and they have a baby son. There seems to be a lightness to Harington, at odds with the pensiveness that his face tends to settle into, and he is quick to make fun of himself. At one point a woman – at first I think it’s Leslie, but he says it’s her sister, Portia, who is also an actor – brings him a coffee, and he laughs and says: “That looks like I have things brought to me.”
A couple of years ago, he went to talk to the Donmar’s artistic director, Michael Longhurst, about the possibility of him working there, and suggested the play. “The more I thought about what part I’d quite like to play,” he says … then immediately stops and adds “it’s a wonderful thing to have that choice”, wary of sounding arrogant. “But the more I thought about that play, and reread it, the more I thought, ‘That’s a really interesting one for our times.’”
At drama school, Harington thought Henry was the hero, the dream role, and one of Henry’s speeches was his audition piece. “I was like, he’s the coolest character, very strong and charismatic. And in re-looking at it, he is strong and charismatic but he’s a very questionable leader. So we’re posing, I guess, the question of who is he and why are we following him?” As a leader, “there’s something very populist about Henry”, says Harington. “He has a selfish motivation towards most things he does. I’m not sure my Henry is doing it for the good of the country. I think he’s doing it for himself, and I think that can speak to certain leaders we have at the moment. Are they servants to the country? Or are they purely ambitious politically?”
Centuries on, there is war looming in Europe. On the day we speak, Britain has agreed to send more troops to Poland amid growing concern that Russia is about to invade Ukraine. And the issue of England’s relationship with Europe is not so much an echo through time, as a howl. Henry invades France to bolster his power; modern-day Brits get Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP and Brexiter, standing on a desk in his office on the night of the referendum, reciting Henry’s St Crispin’s Day speech in celebration.
Or you could talk about the current epidemic of male violence and the play’s portrayal of masculinity (though perhaps that’s less obvious in this production, in which 50% of the cast are female). “I see it everywhere,” says Harington, who has given “toxic masculinity” a lot of thought over the years, even if he bristles at the phrase, not least because of the roles he has played. “I see confused men walking the streets. I see terrible role models. I see a lot of anger, and I think we need to start dealing with that anger – we as men, but we as a society as well.”
For Harington, the play became more personal than he was expecting. In 2019, he went to rehab for addiction, mostly alcohol. In an interview last year, he said it had left him feeling suicidal at points. Henry V, he says, was “a way of exorcising demons, I think. But I think all acting is in some way.” He looked at Henry as a recovering addict – as Shakespeare implies – and asked: “What happens to a person when they put down one lifestyle and cross to a different thing? And if that different thing is power, what does that look like?” Particularly, he says, because “addiction gone wrong is a very selfish trait. Even a sober addict can be a very selfish person. It’s a self-centred disease.”
Harington believes he may have become an actor because of the same issues that underpinned his addiction. “This is a very addictive job,” he says. “In a week’s time, I’m going to go out, stand on stage and get applause and it’s going to be a huge rush and a high. The trouble is, I never really wanted to come down from that high. Now, I’ve learned how I do that and I’m much happier for it.” He has been sober for nearly three years, “so I’m well on my path to recovery, and all I can say to anyone thinking about it is it’s a wonderful way of living your life. It saved me, for sure.” Harington’s son has just turned one, which has prompted the actor to reflect on the last year. “I feel like a much more grounded, settled person,” he says. “I’m so grateful that I got sober before having a child.”
Did Harington identify with Henry at all? “I’m going to quote Shakespeare now,” he says – before adding a deadpan “how embarrassing”. “But Henry has this one line where he says: ‘Think’st thou the fiery fever will go out, with titles blown from adulation?’. That question of, ‘Will this thing inside that’s wrong go away, if I get adulation?’ That really spoke to me.”
His mother, the playwright turned artist Deborah Catesby, would take him and his brother to the theatre regularly when they were children. His father, David, a businessman, is a baronet, but although the family were “solidly middle-class”, he says, they weren’t rich. He had a state education, partly because of his mother’s politics, but also there wasn’t the money for school fees. Seeing a touring production of Waiting for Godot was a formative experience. Harington and a friend put on a scene from the play at school and he remembers the audience’s laughter. “They were probably just being polite – parents coming to see their kids’ show.” Seeing Adrian Lester as Henry V at the National Theatre while at drama school was another decisive moment.
What did acting give him? “You know, I’ve noticed that my little boy loves applause,” he says, in mock horror. “He’s the son of two actors so he’s going to, isn’t he? But everything he does, he wants applause. It’s making me and Rose terrified.” But he’s the same. “It’s something about that. I think I was a show-off and I liked getting celebrated by my mother. I like attention.”
In a prime example of the need to be careful of what you wish for, there can’t have been many actors as applauded or given as much as attention as Harington was in 2019, when Game of Thrones concluded. It’s easy to forget just how huge it was. Although he sometimes gets stopped on his walk to the Donmar, these days he doesn’t cause a riot. Harington is careful not to sound ungrateful, but it must have been a difficult, intense experience. Before Jon Snow, his biggest role had been in the National Theatre’s production of War Horse. Game of Thrones, his first TV role, brought extreme fandom (hundreds would camp outside hotels he was staying in), vast financial wealth and intense scrutiny, all before he hit 30.
Does he look back and wonder how he survived it? “I wasn’t very well through a portion of it towards the end, so I could say that an element of me didn’t survive it,” he says. “But I think that would have happened were I in that show or not. I look at it with great fondness. I feel very privileged to have been in it and I’m continuing to get to be in the theatre, in large part, because of that show.” Any downsides are more than balanced out, he says. “There’s a baby boy downstairs, and my wife, who I met on the show. I looked at it from a perspective of tortuousness and anxiousness a lot when I was in it.” He smiles. “I’ve got no reason to be doing that now.”
Henry V is at the Donmar, London, 15 February–9 April, and will be broadcast as part of NT Live