Kit Harington on His Spy Movie MI-5, Privacy, Snowden, and the Need for Mobile-Phone-Photo Etiquette

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Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Kit Harington knows you're watching him. For six months now, his every move has been documented, whether he shows up at an airport, a tennis match, or on set. Everything he does or doesn't do is treated as a clue — what length is his famously contracted hair? How is his stubble? What is his mood? Could any of this reveal something about the fate of Jon Snow?

Those are not answers he's prepared to give just yet, so you'll just have to wait another four months. (Sorry!) And besides, he's got a film career, which is fortunately helping him work out some of his issues regarding being constantly followed wherever he goes. Harington's latest, now finally getting a U.S. release, is called MI-5. It's a sequel to the U.K. TV show Spooks, and in it he plays a rogue spy who's brought in to help catch a terrorist and, as a bonus, unravel a mystery that might affect the very nature of both the U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies. (It's currently playing on demand, on DirecTV, and in select theaters in New York and L.A.) Harington called us from London to chat about being under surveillance, getting thrown through a wall, and spy aesthetics.

At least one review of MI-5 pointed out that you're the screen's "first gentleman spy to sport a hipster man-bun."
Yeah, it's a great disguise in my real life. That was one of the unique things that we found with the character Will Holloway in this film, because at that time, I couldn't do much with cutting the old locks! So we had to adapt around it. And, actually, a lot of younger men are going around sporting beards and long hair, so why shouldn't our young man in our spy drama do the same? If he's blending into the background, that's kind of the look you're going to do. And it's different! You usually see a spy with a sort of clean-cut appearance, an everyman look. We wanted to present him as the sort of punk kid that you try to avoid. He's a little thug, you know? A bit of a brute. Not your average spy. That was cool.

You get to do some spectacular stunt work in this film: crashing cars, crashing through windows, getting your head smashed into a wall ...
In that scene, I was supposed to be smashed against the wall, but I went through it by accident. I went straight through the wall! And that made the final cut, which is quite fun. There was a lot of cool stuff I got to do because I didn't have a stuntman for this. I did everything myself. I like that! I like it when they say, "You know, we haven't got a stuntman for you. Can you do it?" So I was climbing up buildings, jumping from building to building, sprinting through Heathrow Airport, all sorts of stuff!

Including running on the roof of the National Theatre. Was that like a homecoming for you?
Yeah, that was extra special. My first job was at the National, War Horse. I couldn't have been a more excited young actor. Actors work their whole lives to play a lead on the National stage, and it just so happened that this lead needed to look like a prepubescent boy, and I kind of filled that quota. Now I've got a superstition — every time I see a War Horse poster, I have to kind of give it a little kiss. So it was quite funny going in the stage door and not being there to do a play. I love that we had that as a location because it's one of my favorite places. It kind of divides opinion, that building, because of its brutal architecture. Some people hate it, but I absolutely love that building, and it means everything about London to me. I think that was one of the great things about the film, that we didn't shoot the great classic symbols. There wasn't the red London bus passing through to say, "This is London." It felt like real London — the granite architecture, and the slightly darker edge of London around the bits that we shot.

Apparently, you had some trouble with the buses when they came into the shot.
Oh God, the buses. It's funny to look back at it now, but at the time, they were a real pain in the ass! I was half naked on a bus the whole time we were shooting because of the Pompeii poster. Every two seconds, we would have to call, "Cut!" because there was some bus with the Pompeii poster going across in the background. The first time it was funny, but then, after that, it just became really tedious. I used to love to catch the bus, and I couldn't catch them for months during that because of the fear that I might be sitting above my own head on the side of the bus. Occupational hazard, isn't it?

One of the themes of the film is how you can't escape being watched. Your character figures out clues from CCTV images. Meetings are scheduled to dodge cameras, and then the cameras are used to figure out the best vantage points for snipers. What do you think about the surveillance state?
Yeah, well, because of Snowden, you're very aware of this now. We have these horrible, and I believe wrong, new measures brought into our country about people's records being kept of what internet sites they've been on. There's a snooping culture in the U.K. which is very unhealthy. In London especially, we're one of the most, if not the most, surveilled population in the world. I find that terrifying — governmental control of internet records and phone records is wrong. Deeply wrong. I feel that quite strongly. And it's part of the reason I like this movie, because it hinged a lot around that question, which is an important one. Spooks has always done that. It always asked, “How much should a country be surveilled? What's the threat to our privacy?” There's a lot about that subject out there right now, and it's absolutely right for drama to be asking those questions.

Are you on a cell phone right now? We said "Snowden" — isn't that one of their trigger keywords?  
Yeah, they're probably listening to me right now. [Laughs.] They can listen to your phone calls anytime they like. And also, if your phone is off in your pocket, they can turn it on. The fact that they have the right to do that is amazing to me. So, hello, MI-5, if you're listening!

Hello, NSA!
[Laughs.] Hello! I'm not overly paranoid about it, but I agree. In some ways, it's quite right that Snowden was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. I think the freedom of the press is an important thing, to take stock of that subject, and when the press is controlled, that's a very dangerous thing.  One of the reasons I love being an actor is sometimes you get to ... I don't necessarily like making political statements, and actors really shouldn't, but sometimes you get to do so through your work. Through drama. I read 1984 when I was a kid, and it was a book I obsessed over. I became very paranoid about everything, for many years. I'm glad they're bringing out a new movie of it because it's an important thing to always be aware of, how much your governments are watching you or listening to you, and not disclosing what they hear or what they're doing. But I don't go around noticing surveillance cameras the whole time I've been living in my own head too much.

Sometimes it's not just the government cameras. You go anywhere in public, and people take your picture. It's got to be so annoying when they just. Will. Not. Stop.
Do I think people taking photos of you without your permission is rude? Of course I do. I deal with it a lot. There's a lot of camera phones being pointed at me in not such a subtle manner. And a lot of my friends who are actors, and myself, we get angry about it. It's incredibly rude behavior. It's one thing to ask someone for a photo and give them the chance to say yes or no, and hopefully they say yes. But to take photos of me without permission, it is an invasion of privacy. I do call people out on that. Most of the time it's just people maybe getting overly excited that they've seen someone they recognize, and it's completely innocent. If I'm on the street, and I see something interesting, I might think, Oh, wow! I'll take a photo of that. But then I stop myself because I know how it feels. We need new etiquette rules to deal with all our new technology.

What kind of rules would you suggest?
Well, I don't believe in public shaming, either. I don't believe people need to be shamed about these things. They just need to stop and take stock of what they're photographing. Is it an actor, a musician, or just someone on the street who's acting oddly? There's a feeling that you should know, that you should be empathetic to how it feels to other people to be watched or photographed. If you wouldn't like it yourself, then don't do it to other people. Be more polite, generally. Because I can tell you, it's very uncomfortable being photographed all the time without your permission. So I would ask people not to do that ... to anyone.