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From 'Game of Thrones' to 'Pompeii,' Kit Harington swings mighty sword

For his first leading movie role, Kit Harington worked out several hours a day until he had perfect six-pack abs. He spent hours training to fight with swords, inhaled a ton of ash, ran in mud and rainstorms, and confronted severe winds — often in 100-plus-degree weather.

And he’d do it again.

George Kraychyk / Today
Milo (Kit Harington) in a gladiator ring in "Pompeii."

Known to “Games of Thrones” fans as the brooding bastard son Jon Snow, Harington, 27, is no stranger to braving elements. For the HBO drama, he has spent a lot of time climbing mountains in the wilderness of Iceland. In "Pompeii," he plays Milo, a Celtic gladiator trying to save his true love as Mount Vesuvius erupts and Pompeii crumbles — a filming feat that required more time in a studio than outdoors, but many long and demanding hours of battle and fight sequences. The film opens Friday.

“I loved getting immersed in something very physical,” Harington told TODAY. “When you’re looking at a character or a movie, you’re always looking to find a way into a character. Something like this that’s very physical — the guy doesn’t philosophize in any kind of a modern way of thinking. He’s just a very physical person and relies on his swords to get by on life. It’s one of the major reasons I took this film. I just wanted to throw myself in there.”

Harington already had experience with sword training, but playing Milo mandated that he become deft at using short swords and shields. He and actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (“Lost”), who plays another slave-turned-gladiator, trained using real weapons.

“They weren’t sharp, thank God, but I always find it distracting to use plastic swords or rubber swords,” Harington said. “I like to use metal ones because you get the real sense of their weight and you even get the sound that they make when they thrash, and that’s very helpful when filming the fight.”

Caitlin Cronenberg / Today
Atticus (Adewele Akinnouye-Agbaje) and Milo (Kit Harington) in "Pompeii."

To get into gladiator shape, the two actors exercised at 5 a.m. before filming began each day, trained again during their lunch break, and then again in the evening. Their regime included cardio workouts to help with endurance for the sword fights and weight training to build muscle mass and look the part.

“I always considered myself an athlete but this was on another level,” Harington said. “The process was to bulk up, which meant to eat a lot of food, which got pretty nasty. Then we cut the calories to slim down but with a lot of weight lifting. You have to just throw yourself at it. I realized I was going to be topless for some of it and I didn’t want to look chubby.”

To keep the film as realistic as possible, director Paul W.S. Anderson limited the use of CGI, which meant the actors were also up against simulated smoke, dust, fire and debris of the volcanic eruption. The fictional story is set on the historic day in 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted, releasing a 19 mile-high plume of ash, and the ancient Roman town suffered an earthquake and a tsunami in a 12-hour period and was wiped out.

“You have to imagine a lot of it because, obviously, you’re not seeing the real explosion,” Harington said. “There were a couple of times they were using real explosions that it got really close. It’s a very difficult genre to jump into — you have to imagine your life is in peril a lot of the time. It’s challenging in an emotional way as well.”

The actor, who will soon be seen in “The Seventh Son” with Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore, and heard as the voice of “Eret, son of Ert” in “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” said he never envisioned becoming an action star.

“I was always very physical as a teenager,” Harington said. “I liked going to the gym and I liked sports. When I got into acting, I just wanted to perform in any, way, shape or form as an actor. So to land roles which were quite male, macho action hero roles, is something I really responded to. When I got ‘Thrones’ and subsequently, this film, I didn’t want to be a soft bloke. I wanted to be very tough.”

But not so tough that he’d be disloyal to his lover, the way Jon Snow betrayed Ygritte in the last season of “Game of Thrones.”

“I look at him and wonder if I’d do the same thing and I wouldn’t, probably,” Harington said. “He’s very duty and honor-bound and that’s what motivates him. It’s wonderful to have a story where there’s a real dilemma for a character and I think there was a real dilemma for him. I think he was very close to staying with the girl. But he knows he can’t attack the wall and that he doesn’t belong with that group of people, so he had to take the high road as far as his honor goes.”

Fans of the fantasy drama should not expect Jon Snow to spend too much time in the new season dwelling on his feelings about what happened between him and Ygritte. “Game of Thrones” returns on April 6.

“It’s all very internal what he’s feeling for her,” Harington said. “I hope the audience gets that because that’s what I was trying to play throughout the season. He loves her and that doesn’t change. But he has to get on with the job at hand. He very much becomes a leader. We have been waiting for him to step up to that role. He doesn’t have an older figure telling him what to do anymore. He’s now that person because there’s no one left. They’re all dead.”