Kit Harington and Laura Carmichael on early TV success and their troubles with stage fright

To celebrate the Olivier Awards, Radio Times has brought together some of the biggest stars of the screen whose passion is the stage...

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When you started out, what was the dream?

Kit Harington The ultimate ambition was to leave drama school and get a role as a spearcarrier at the RSC. Aged 17, I saw Ben Whishaw playing Hamlet and that was it for me, I was like, “I want to be Ben Whishaw.” So I applied to Rada… and didn’t get in. I ended up going to Central and while I was there auditioned for War Horse at the National and amazingly got the part. It was like winning the Lottery.

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Laura Carmichael I wanted to be a ballerina! Then at 16 I did Love’s Labour’s Lost at Winchester College, a posh boys’ school down the road from my school. They needed girls for their production, so four of us rocked up – the only girls on campus – and that was it!

How important are school plays in cultivating the next acting generation?

Kit There’s a push in schools to get back to basics – English, maths, science – and drama is tragically overlooked. It enables young people to break out of their shell, find confidence and a direction – it doesn’t mean they’re going to go off and be actors – but it’s a great outlet, which should have funding pumped into it, and it’s not.

Laura I was really lucky at Winchester College, with an amazing teacher, Simon Taylor, who’s taught quite a few actors. Hugh Dancy was one of his protégés. Since we went to drama school, fees have gone up, which is mad! We have to be wary about what’s happened to arts funding. All the conversations about diversity should remind us that the arts have to be accessible to everyone.

Were you wary of committing to on-going parts in TV dramas so early in your careers?

Carmichael as Lady Edith in Downton Abbey and Harington as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones

Laura No! I didn’t have an agent after drama school and I didn’t work for two years. I was a teaching assistant. It’s just amazing how one part changes your life! It turns out Jill Trevellick, the Downton casting director, saw me at drama school and two years later found out where I was.

Kit When Games of Thrones came along, I felt really lucky. We also got into TV at an amazing time, where the scale of it was changing.

Laura It’s our profiles from those shows that mean we’re offered great parts on the stage.

Kit All actors crave variety and there can be a laziness you slip into when you go back to a character every year, and I definitely slipped into it in the past. So there’s a point where you go, “I’m an actor. I got into this to play lots of different roles.” I need to do everything possible in my “out” period. That gap in series needs to be as challenging as possible. Having said that, I really don’t know why I said yes to this play [Doctor Faustus at the Duke of York’s theatre]!

Is there extra pressure to perform because of your profiles?

Kit Yes! I won’t lie, I haven’t really slept much recently! It’s terrifying trying to prove to yourself that you can take on a role, while the world – OK maybe THE WORLD is a bit dramatic – but while certain people are waiting to judge you…

Laura There’s certainly an expectation. I also had that feeling leading up to The Maids (below), and a few weeks in I’m still nervous every night, but you should be – when you face something that you find terrifying, the reward is greater.

How different is the process of stage work?

Kit I’ve got so used to prepping TV work in isolation – on my own in a hotel room – then getting on set, having a 15-minute chat about it and then doing it. With a play you come in and learn your part with everyone for five weeks – you discuss it and hone it, and, for me, that sense of company is amazing to have again.

Laura It was the same on Downton – you had to come to set knowing what you wanted out of a scene or you were in trouble.

Kit In TV and film, time really is money and that is the most important thing, unfortunately.

Do you read your reviews?

Laura I did an interview yesterday where some horrible woman tried to quote me a bad review to get a rise out of me! But I really don’t read them – the good ones or the bad ones.

Kit I don’t know whether I’m going to read them… they could have a hugely adverse effect on the performance running for ten weeks. It could either destroy my confidence, or it could turn me into a cocky p***k who stops thinking about what he’s doing – so if I can possibly avoid them, I will.

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Read the full list of Olivier Award nominations here

The Olivier Awards will be broadcast on ITV today (Sunday 3rd April) at 10.15pm