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What Kit Harington's Reveal Means for 'Game of Thrones' and Actors' Mental Health

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Last week, “Game of Thrones” star Kit Harington went on the Jess Cagle show and talked about the time directly after the final season of Game of Thrones, when he took a year off from acting, and even checked himself into a mental health and wellness facility. He explained that the “mental health difficulties” he experienced began toward the end of filming and were “due to the nature of the show” and the many years he had been doing it. At the time he did so, most of the press reported that this was due to alcohol issues, but as usual with celebrity mental health they were only interested in the sordid, and it now appears the truth was much deeper and much more mental health-related.

When I read Kit’s brave reveal this week, while I am inside a mental health facility myself, I was really moved and affirmed by his courage. It also got me thinking about the nature of acting and its toll on the mental health of actors which the industry itself, and particularly the celebrity publicity machine, seem entirely uninterested in. Recently, there has been a very overdue push toward more diverse casting, and also intimacy coordinators who help make the filming of sex scenes between actors safer. But what about the mental health of the actors themselves? Where is the policy on how to protect an actor’s psychological health on set? Where is the course in drama schools or film schools to emphasize mental well-being? When the job requires you to take on the identity of a usually fictional identity, where is the support to keep your own? Where is the healthy boundary between where you end and the character begins?

Since the development of method acting (particularly in the Hollywood system), immersion into a character and the experience of the actor has become commonplace in film and TV. Basically, think of many of the performances that win Academy Awards, like Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull,” or Joaquin Phoenix for “Joker,” Anne Hathaway for “Les Miserables” and Natalie Portman for “Black Swan” — all of whom lost significant weight through extreme dieting — or Leonardo Di Caprio, who actually eating a raw Bison’s liver for “The Revenant.” The list could go on and on. And these are all related to physical health — what about the psychological effect of playing these characters?

Returning to Kit Harington’s decision to take a year’s break and to be treated for his mental health, I tried to find out what happened to him. While I haven’t found evidence that he is a method actor, I did find clues for what so ailed him on the show, for which eight seasons were shot over an eight-year period in wintery, austere locations — a show that, needless to say, became an absolute worldwide phenomenon.

Firstly, in the earlier seasons, Kit’s character of Jon Snow received scathing criticism from some critics and fans as he explained in an interview with Variety: “My memory is always ‘the boring Jon Snow.’ And that got to me after a while… Some of those words that were said about it stuck in my craw about him being less entertaining, less showy.”

As well as dealing with unkind condemnations, he also found the pressure of being such a pivotal character in such a show very destabilizing: “When you become the cliffhanger of a TV show, and a TV show probably at the height of its power, the focus on you is f—ing terrifying… I felt incredibly concerned about whether I could even f—ing act.”

Later in the same Variety article Harington nails exactly how and why his mental health was affected, which prompted him to seek treatment: “It wasn’t a very good time in my life. I felt I had to feel that I was the most fortunate person in the world, when actually, I felt very vulnerable. I had a shaky time in my life around there — like I think a lot of people do in their 20s. That was a time when I started therapy, and started talking to people. I had felt very unsafe, and I wasn’t talking to anyone.”

It seems it was the controversial final series — that seemed to be more reviled than loved — that particularly affected Harington. The pre-shooting table reading of the final season shows him breaking down at what happens to his character, or what his character has to do in the final episode. The line between the character and him, between the Thrones world and his own, seems as one.

In the Variety article, Harington himself explained what happened when he shot his last day:  “I took off the costume, and it felt like my skin was being peeled away. I was very emotional. It felt like someone was shedding me of something.” You can see video of the speech he makes at the end of his last filming day where he can barely speak but manages to say: “My heart is breaking. I love this show more than anything. It’s never been a job for me, it’s been my life… You’ve all been my family and I love you for it.”

The last point about the cast and crew of a set becoming his family is also key, especially over eight years of filming and often in very difficult locations, and often shooting explicitly violent and sexual scenes in a bleak fictional world. Clearly, the toll on the actors and crew is immense. The heartening thing about Harington’s experience is that he took a year off acting and even sought professional help for his mental health, and has now gone public about it. Perhaps some change can come into the industry as a result of his courage.

But I wonder if more can be done to help when actors are on set and are immersed in their characters and the world of their characters. And also, what about the transient nature of filming and how very intense relationships are made in a very artificial context and then suddenly everyone is separated? Each set usually has a nurse, so what about a set psychologist? A mental health professional on call for whatever distress arises, any past traumas reignited, how their sense of self is affected, or any other deeper mental well-being need, whether cast or crew.

Finally, when actors do seek help and are outed for doing so let’s not mock them and reduce their help-seeking. We know from our own experiences that our issues go much deeper, and how fragile our mental health can be.

Image via YouTube

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