This is how a hit television show can transform an actor’s life:
A few years before starting his multi-year stint as Jon Snow on HBO’s massively successful fantasy series “Game of Thrones,” Kit Harington was just another 18-year-old Brit, backpacking down the East Coast of the United States, looking for a warm bed but facing dwindling funds on the last stop of his trip, which happened to be Washington. Every cheap room seemed to be booked, and it was getting late when he made finally made his way to a hostel.
“They said, ‘Well, you can stay in the hammock out back,’ ” he said. “So I slept one night in a hammock, and then they put me in a room at the top of the building where there was a lovely but rather raving mad homeless woman that was in the room. And there was a tropical thunderstorm, and I remember being in this hostel on the top bunk with a raving homeless woman, and the lightning was flashing outside, and I thought, ‘Where am I?’ ”
And where is he now? The 27-year-old is headlining his first movie, the disaster epic “Pompeii,” where he dons little more than a leather kilt and eye-poppingly chiseled abs. He plays Milo, a gladiator who thinks he’ll face his biggest challenges in the arena, not realizing that Mount Vesuvius is about to blow. Harington came back to Washington this week and admitted that the Mandarin Oriental was quite the upgrade over the digs during his last visit.
Television has become a powerful platform for actors. The length of a series gives performers time to explore the nuances of a character, and TV producers tend to take greater risks than film financiers. Becoming a movie star seems the next logical step, and yet it’s hard to imagine a film giving Harington more exposure than “Thrones” has. The show is just one of the popular series — “Breaking Bad,” “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black” — that are so addictive that a term has spawned for how people digest them: binge watching.
“Pompeii” director Paul W.S. Anderson (the man behind “Resident Evil” and its many successors) knows all about that. He’d missed out on the early “Game of Thrones” mania with a busy filming schedule, but when his wife, actress Milla Jovovich, told him he had to watch the series, he gave the show a try.
“I watched the first episode, and I was so hooked, I watched the first two seasons in 48 hours, like a nonstop ‘Game of Thrones’-a-thon,” he said by phone from London. “And I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful series and a wonderful cast, but for me in the 48 hours of the condensed first two seasons, the person who really jumped out was Kit Harington playing Jon Snow. I thought this guy was just a movie star waiting to explode.”
But how does a movie star differ from a television star and does the distinction even matter? For Harington, the biggest noticeable difference is the amenities.
“I went from ‘Pompeii’ straight back to ‘Thrones,’ and I arrived on set and I’m in my tiny little box trailer, and you have to check yourself, because I said to one of the assistants, ‘Could I get coffee?’ And they were like, ‘Get it yourself,’ ” he said, laughing. “Of course, of course! I used to get coffees myself. What am I doing?”
Many from the cast of “Pompeii” have benefitted from the exposure of compulsively watchable television shows. The villain, a corrupt senator who has his eye on Milo’s true love, is played by Kiefer Sutherland, whose movie career fizzled before he found new life as Jack Bauer on “24.” Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko on “Lost”) plays another gladiator, Atticus, who becomes Milo’s only friend. This comes at a time when Matthew McConaughey is Oscar-nominated for “Dallas Buyers Club” while also starring in the HBO series “True Detective.”
“I think it speaks volumes about where TV is at the moment,” Harington said. “A lot of actors are taking TV scripts far more seriously now. You have some great directors moving into TV; you’ve got some great writers writing for TV. I think it was always sort of a taboo around TV: Are you a TV actor or a movie actor? And that’s sort of disappeared.”
Playing Jon Snow, stationed at the Wall in the frigid northern region of Westeros, Harington’s costumes consist of layers of fur and leather. It’s reasonable to think there’s a gladiator hiding under there, but in person, in a charcoal button-down shirt and jeans, Harington looks slim. With the exception of his signature wavy locks and hint of a beard, there are few reminders that he also plays killing machines on occasion. (And will again — he’ll play a British spy in the movie version of “Spooks.”) As so many other movie actors do these days, Harington transformed his body for the role.
“He was not a gladiator when I met him,” Anderson said. “He said, ‘Look, I read what’s in the script, and I’m not that person, but I’ll become that person for you.’ And he definitely did.”
Five weeks before filming, he started bulking up, eating 4,000 calories a day plus protein shakes and started a regimen of heavy weightlifting. His trainer and nutritionist told him to always opt for sitting over standing and walking over running. He gained about 25 pounds before switching to a 2,000-calorie diet with gym sessions three times a day, six days a week.
This all seems like a lot of work for someone who could easily take a six-month vacation when he isn’t filming “Game of Thrones” during the latter half of each year. But taking the role of Milo made sense to Harington.
“This was a great opportunity to be a leading man,” he said. “It’s a genre I know and have worked in. It’s not going to be a wildly different character, it’s not a particularly character-driven role, but it’s an opportunity to be a leading man, to do a body transformation. And I had lots of things I wanted to do within it.”
He even learned some new skills on “Pompeii” that came in handy playing Jon Snow. The disaster movie is riddled with combat scenes, and when Harington wasn’t filming, he was usually learning some new bit of fight choreography.
“I went straight from ‘Pompeii’ to ‘Thrones,’ and I went back a noticeably better swordsman,” Harington said. And, as “Thrones” fans (who haven’t gotten around to reading all the books George R.R. Martin has churned out) will want to know: Is that going to be important for his character?
“There’s a lot of sword fighting in this season,” Harington said.
Opening in area theaters on Friday. Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content. 102 minutes.