Kit Harington gets autobiographical in the new Xavier Dolan film

The actor you may know as Jon Snow on playing a very close-to-home lead in Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.

Once I had spoken with Dolan about the complicated process of making The Death and Life of John F. Donovan and its iffy reaction at its world premiere the day before, it was time to speak with its star, Kit Harington. Known the world over for playing Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, Kit Harington is a particularly canny casting decision to play an adulated, mysterious actor.

“I honestly can say I’ve never worked with quite such a dedicated director, or such a passionate one,” says Harington about working with Dolan. “I know these are all words that everyone uses when they talk about a director, but it really is true with him. He is tireless to the point of exasperation — meaning that he wants so much from you, and that’s the kind of director you want to work with. I love his films and I think that he does them with great skill, especially for someone of his age. There’s a shamelessness about what he does. ‘I’m gonna do this the way I want to do this, and fuck you to anyone who doesn’t buy into it.’ I love that about him. Whether people love this movie or hate this movie or they fall somewhere in between, the one thing you can say about Xavier is he’s committed in a way that I’ve rarely seen in my directors.”

The character of John F. Donovan parallels many young male actors from the time period — though he isn’t a 1:1 analogue of anyone in particular, some have brought up River Phoenix or Heath Ledger as Donovan-like characters. If you boil it down to its essence, however, Donovan could be any actor thrust in the spotlight. Donovan can’t be himself because he’s stuck being the person everyone else needs him to be — and the pleasure of the work and the attention that he was seeking by pursuing it has been entirely monopolized by scrutiny and a complete lack of boundaries from both his entourage and the public at large. When asked if that particular aspect of the character was something he could empathize with as an actor, Kit Harington is rather open.

“I think on a simpler level, I was seeking to play someone whose life was closer to the life I lead,” says Harington, whose post-GoT work has mainly been in period pieces like Pompeii, Brimstone or the WWI drama Testament of Youth. “I didn’t realize it would be quite this close! I’ve played a sword-wielding hero on horseback in a fantasy; I’ve done things that fall quite far from modern life and realism. This presented itself as an opportunity to explore something much closer to home. It actually ended up being even closer between the original script I read to the one we ended up shooting. In the original one, it was a huge movie star. The guy I ended up playing was a heartthrob in a big TV show — and I know about that! (laughs) I can draw on my real life.” 

“I think there is something interesting with actors and how they crave attention and they crave being looked at — it’s something that drives us all. But I think what the movie is about, for me, is really the different facets of all of our personalities: what we choose to hide and what we show when we turn up to work, what we are when we’re alone in the car… It just so happens that John F. Donovan is a gay man who hides it. He’s not prepared to come out and say he’s gay. He thinks he’s closeted because of his job, but it’s really because of other things. What fascinated me was what someone’s private self and what someone’s public self looks like, and it’s quite interesting to look at it in the world of the entertainment industry.”

The film’s wraparound segment also deals with the mechanics and repercussions of fan culture — of how public personalities are seen and how they’re treated by the people who somehow both vilify and worship them. Considering the rabid fanbase for Game of Thrones (the last season of which had not yet aired when I spoke with Harington), the actor has a pretty good vantage point on that, too. 

“The thing that always disturbs me as an actor and when I meet fans is that there’s something you can never quite live up to,” he says. “They have this image of you that is fabricated – whether it’s from stuff they read on the Internet or just because they’ve watched you as a character on a show and expect you to be this person that you can never end up being. I think it’s partly the English side of me — I’m apologetic about myself and I’m not really very good on a red carpet. It’s a bit awkward, people screaming for you and getting hysterical. It’s strange to me — what is it you think I am? What pedestal have you put me on? How is it you think I’m so much different from you? I’ve found that that’s a very uncomfortable part of my job — I’m not good at dealing with it, and I’ve had to find ways to deal with it.”

As the film was shot in Montreal, I would be remiss not to ask Harington about spending time in our city — lots of time, as it turns out.

“I loved it!” says Harington. “I’ve shot a lot in Canada — I’ve shot in Vancouver, I’ve shot two films in Toronto, and I loved in Montreal. Fuck me, you’ve got great food there. Some of the best food I’ve eaten anywhere. The people are wonderful, and it’s a fun-loving city. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be for four or five months alone. It’s a very lonely thing to do, as an actor, and if you’re somewhere that you don’t like, it’s just that much harder. But Montreal was warm and welcoming and brilliant.”

I bring up that many people in my entourage spoke of running into Kit Harington during the shoot — that despite his fame, he was significantly more visible than most celebrities who shoot films here, and yet people were surprised that he was “just a guy,” which ties in perfectly with the themes of the film.

“There are a lot of actors or musicians that would like to portray themselves as a deity or some sort of god-like figure,” says Harington. “They’re late to things, they have this whole circus around them and this entourage… I have me and my publicist, if I’m doing anything like this. I have no desire to live a life that is embracing anything beyond the fact that I’m a working actor.” ■

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan staring Kit Harington opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 23. Watch the trailer below.

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