From Jon Snow to ancestor and historical militant

In the historical thriller Gunpowder, actor Kit Harington (left) plays Robert Catesby, the mastermind of a 1605 plot to blow up the House of Lords in London.
In the historical thriller Gunpowder, actor Kit Harington (above) plays Robert Catesby, the mastermind of a 1605 plot to blow up the House of Lords in London.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Gunpowder, a new HBO historical thriller, gave Kit Harington the chance to produce his first show, investigate a "family curiosity" and branch out from his more well-known gig as Jon Snow on the HBO hit series, Game Of Thrones.

But the actor admitted that his day job did skew his perspective.

"I walked onto the set on Gunpowder, going, 'What do you mean we don't have 200 extras?'" he said jokingly.

"Nothing competes with Thrones. I knew that going in."

The three-part miniseries, debuting in the United States today on HBO, re-creates the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the failed scheme by Roman Catholic militants to blow up the House of Lords in London and assassinate the Protestant King James I and many others in the process.

The foiling of the plan was commemorated with a national holiday on Nov 5, the day the attack was supposed to transpire, which has evolved into the festive annual celebration known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night, after the conspirator who was discovered the night before with the explosives.

"The story is about a group of violent and angry young men planning a massacre in the name of their faith," Harington said.

"It's a story that could be lifted off any modern news channel."

He said the producers strove for historical accuracy in the dramatised events in Gunpowder, which unfolds in a mucky 17th-century England in which Catholics risk torture and execution by secretly practising their religion.

Harington plays Robert Catesby, the plot mastermind and his own distant ancestor. His middle name, and his mother's maiden name, is Catesby.

Other stars include Liv Tyler; a slithery Mark Gatiss as court operator Robert Cecil; and Tom Cullen, whose fearsome Guy Fawkes is a barbarous departure from the radical chic symbol favoured by many hackers and activists.

Harington partnered his friend Daniel West and writer Ronan Bennett to develop the series, which was shot in spring this year in Yorkshire and debuted in Britain in October.

While this actor was not necessarily burning to get into producing, "when you have a very clear idea of how it should be done, you don't want to hand those decisions over to someone else", he said.

An audibly weary Harington discussed Gunpowder from Belfast, where he is shooting the final season of Game Of Thrones. ("It was a gruelling day, I'm not going to lie," he said.)

What drew you to this story?

It is a piece of family curiosity: I am distantly related to the person I am playing. It is a fascinating story in a fascinating time in England.

On Nov 5 in the United Kingdom, we set off fireworks - it is a bit like our Independence Day. And then if you look at it, it is really about a great act of violence by a group of young men. And it had not really been told much before.

Can you help non-British understand why an unsuccessful religious insurrection is still celebrated?

That is the funny thing - really why it became remembered is because the government made it a national holiday so every Catholic in the land, and everyone thinking about treason, would remember the 5th of November and why they should not do what they are thinking of doing. It was a piece of propaganda.

Now, it has become this wonderful evening of toffee apples, fireworks, fun and mulled wine. It has changed its meaning.

The Guy Fawkes portrayed here might surprise people who basically know him from the mask, which has a certain debonair quality.

Guy Fawkes was a brutal mercenary Catholic. He was very religious and wanted to fight for the faith and he was brought in as an explosives expert. He certainly was not debonair - he was a violent man, one the other plotters seem to have been quite scared of in many ways. So we based it on history.

V For Vendetta (the graphic novel and the 2006 film adaptation, tracking a revolutionary anarchist), which I love, brought round the Occupy Wall Street kind of nihilistic mask that we know about as Guy Fawkes. But the name has sort of been twisted away from who the person was.

What did you learn about Catesby?

He was a widower, which is very important in our story.

He was so religious and, maybe, there was something very selfish in this man - he wanted to get to heaven to see his wife again, so he did not care whether he died in this mission or not.

I went through periods of really disliking him, of going, "You b*****d - you basically sacrificed not only your life, but your friends' lives."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2017, with the headline 'From Jon Snow to ancestor and historical militant'. Print Edition | Subscribe