Interview: Rose Leslie, from Wildling warrior to London detective

Rose Leslie. Picture: Alex Bramall
Rose Leslie. Picture: Alex Bramall
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She’s left Ygritte for dead, but then Game Of Thrones star Rose Leslie has a ferocious appetite for new roles, even though acting isn’t the be-all and end-all for the young Scot

GRITTY, raw, brutal. Not words you’d associate with the incredibly polite and well-spoken Rose Leslie. On screen it’s a different matter. The Scottish actress is best known for playing the fantastically feral Ygritte in Game Of Thrones and as for her turn in ITV’S Edwardian period megahit, Downton Abbey, her standout memory is heaving a horse out of the mud with Lady Sybil.

Rose Leslie in Luther. Picture: BBC

Rose Leslie in Luther. Picture: BBC

A woman who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty then, which is just as well as she’s up to her armpits in blood and body parts in the BBC’s Luther this week. A series not known for holding back on the grit in its previous three outings, this two-parter doesn’t disappoint its massive following and will dutifully serve up gore and guts, violence, car chases and a higher body count than a Downton shooting party.

Leslie plays DS Emma Jones, Idris Elba’s sidekick and a no-nonsense detective with a score to settle, whose tenacity is tested as the story unfolds. “She’s is a brilliant character because she’s incredibly professional and good at her job. She’s loyal and determined in the face of brutality. She has so many layers,” says Leslie.

Rather than a spoiler, we’ll go for a taster, with a snippet of Leslie’s dialogue: “He bit the tongue out guv”.

Speaking from her flat in north London, Leslie is sanguine about Luther’s hard-hitting style. After all this is the woman who did two seasons in the role of bloodthirsty Ygritte, a Wildling woman and spearwife with a blunt Lancashire accent. It was Ygritte’s love affair with her nemesis that gave the series one of its catchphrases, “You know nothin’ Jon Snow”, before she was killed off at the end of series four.

Rejection is a massive part of acting. You have to take it in your stride

Rose Leslie

Does she get a lot of people shouting it at her?

“I do! I do! And it’s a lovely thing. I feel fortunate to be part of it because the fan base is extraordinary and incredibly vast. Having that catchphrase thrown at me now and then, it’s a lovely thing.”

Leslie still has an affection for the character. “She was fairly ferocious and when her world was threatened you saw how committed she was to the Wildlings and her tribe, to saving her people. She was a warrior, very self-reliant, ballsy.”

But she’s unlikely to be making a comeback. “Yes, Ygritte is definitely dead. She’s been burnt. I think she’s very dead. She’s not coming back,” says Leslie, dashing the hopes of many GoT fans hoping for a resurrection. “I think it’s important to change and not be associated with your character too much. I adored my time on that show, but all good things come to an end,” says the 28-year-old.

Rose Leslie in Downton Abbey. Picture: ITV

Rose Leslie in Downton Abbey. Picture: ITV

Leslie is grateful for the spotlight the success of the series internationally has shone on her work and the opportunities it has opened up to her.

“The phenomenon that is Game Of Thrones has propelled many actors associated with it into the minds of directors and producers and it’s a fabulous position to be in. It’s because it’s so adored and respected, of such high quality with such amazing cinematography. The gap between film and TV is narrowing and that’s great for us all,” she says.

“It’s popular because it’s the best escapism in the world, with the fantastical element, family, friends, war and brutality. It’s so compelling, the locations, costumes, and it’s visually stunning. All of that makes for fabulous TV.”

The demise of the doughty Ygritte also meant Leslie was available for new projects and had the freedom to swap her bow and arrow for a gun, and fantasy for crime, in Luther.

Rose Leslie as Ygritte in Game of Thrones

Rose Leslie as Ygritte in Game of Thrones

“Being given a gun stopped me pining for a bow and arrow. I got to shoot blanks, clumsily, and had to make sure I didn’t close my eyes when I pulled the trigger. There were some car chases too. They asked me at the audition if I could drive and I can, so I said yes, but I learned to drive in Scotland on lovely big country roads. Then you find yourself going round the Elephant and Castle roundabout with an entire crew, several in the back of the car and more in another behind you filming, and you’re hunting a killer… Oh my days, wow!” she says.

Luckily the plucky Leslie loves a challenge and throwing herself into diverse roles that pique her interest and wrestle her attention to the floor.

“Luther is raw and brutal like Game Of Thrones, but it’s coincidence. If I’m drawn to anything it would be the writing. Choosing a project is an organic process where I’m taken in by the character and storyline, not the genre, whether fantasy or gritty and raw.”

She adds: “I’ve been an ardent fan and admirer of Luther from the beginning in 2010. It really struck a chord with me. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m hugely privileged to be part of that new cast for two episodes. When you’re working with Sam Miller [director] and Neil Cross [writer] and Idris Elba, you up your game and hope you’re good enough,” she says.

What was it like working opposite actor/DJ/fashion designer and all round pleasingly featured Elba, who has neatly sidestepped the “can a black man play James Bond controversy” in order to rap on Noel Fielding and Kasabian guitarist Serge Pizzorno’s Christmas single.

“You’d think I would be far more professional,” says Leslie, “but on the first day I was like a rabbit in the headlights, thinking ‘what am I doing here?’ He is charming, a gentleman and incredibly professional and welcoming to all new members of cast. Luther is something he’s passionate about and it’s close to his heart, and he’s so brilliant in front of the camera that you just want to nab his skills.”

Rose Leslie in Honeymoon. Picture: The Kobal Collection

Rose Leslie in Honeymoon. Picture: The Kobal Collection

Whether the two episodes will lead to an extended role in future series remains to be seen.

“That’s up to the BBC. I hope there’s more to come but I’m a tiny cog in a very big wheel. Hopefully, fingers crossed, because that would be fantastic.”

Born Rose Eleanor Arbuthnot-Leslie in February 1987 in Aberdeenshire, much has been made of Leslie’s comfortable background, especially when she was cast as housemaid Gwen Dawson in Downton. She’s the daughter of a laird, and when she heads home for Christmas it will be to a castle.

“I have such a love and affinity for the place. I adore it. We’re north of Aberdeen in the middle of the countryside, all trees and nature. I feel very much at peace in Scotland,” she says.

The third of five children, two boys and three girls, she’s the only redhead, or “kissed by fire” as the GoT Wildlings have it.

“Yes, I’m the only ginger,” she says. “The rest are all dark-haired, but I think my dad’s beard would have come in ginger if he’d let it grow. So that proves I’m one of them.”

She’s also the only actor in the clan, as one sister is a teacher, one brother works in the media, another is a tree surgeon and her younger sister is in finance. With siblings to roam through castle grounds with, Leslie “had a lot of fun” and grew up with a robust physicality, despite her slim, deceptively ethereal appearance.

“Yes, my brothers love rugby and wanting to impress my older brother I would become his dummy and let him practise on me. I love sport.”

The Leslie youngsters went to the local primary school in the nearby village of Rayne, which Leslie credits for her Scottish accent, which returns when she’s with her brothers and sisters.

“Yes I was wee Rosie for a good few years at school, and my accent was much stronger. It’s fairly ingrained. I would love to have a character who uses it.”

After primary, Leslie boarded at Millfield in Somerset, where she loved drama and went on to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) to study acting.

“It was something I always had a passion for at school. Because I was never heard in my household, with five of us! I wanted to be the centre of attention. I thought it was fun and managed to get into drama school, then realised I had to take it seriously.”

Accents were one of the things emphasised so when Leslie got the part of Ygritte she felt comfortable enough to suggest Northern tones for the warrior. “I said I would love to give her a Lancashire accent because it fitted the character and made sense with her being from North of the Wall.”

Before Game Of Thrones Leslie had won a Scottish Bafta for Best New Talent for her debut role of Rhian in New Town in 2009, the year after she graduated, then it was straight on to her first major role in Downton.

“It was too good to be true. It didn’t feel like work,” she says. “That was my first ensemble piece. It was great to be on camera every day for six months, a real education.”

In the same year Leslie appeared in the Globe Theatre production of Bedlam, a performance the Telegraph described as “genuinely poignant”, and she’d love to tread the boards again, although the opportunity hasn’t arisen. It was straight into two series of GoT, as well as the Channel 4 conspiracy drama Utopia and ITV miniseries The Great Fire. On the big screen she was also in last year’s Honeymoon, a US science fiction horror film that premiered at South by Southwest – and will put you off cabins in the wood for life.

On the big screen her roles have expanded and she was the leading lady in this autumn’s The Last Witch Hunter, alongside Vin Diesel, Elijah Wood and Michael Caine. It’s a fantasy thriller that switches between contemporary and historical settings.

How did it feel to be playing a lead opposite Diesel’s immortal witch hunter?

“It felt fabulous, certainly with the character of Chloe. I played a young modern witch who is more than a match for her male contemporaries. She’s essentially a good witch, not malevolent.

“Also, it was my first ever studio film and I was away in Pittsburgh for four months. That’s the first time I’ve been away from home for so long. I had never been to the east coast of the US in autumn and it’s utterly mesmerising. The colour around Pennsylvania was extraordinary. I loved Pittsburgh and went to the ice hockey, baseball and American football. I love sport, so I couldn’t believe my luck.”

After Pittsburgh came New Orleans and another film, this time the forthcoming indie drama Sticky Notes, in which she stars opposite Ray Liotta.

“He was great. He plays my father, a cantankerous old fellow. We were estranged but I’m home to look after him because he’s got cancer. It was fabulous to work with him and learn from him. I have been a very lucky lady,” she says.

As well as working opposite Liotta, Leslie enjoyed the delights of New Orleans and the chance to hang out off set somewhere a lot warmer than Aberdeenshire, Iceland or London.

“Oh man, I would love to go back. It’s so vibrant, colourful, the food, the bayous – we went into the swamp and watched alligators. I adored it. It was so full of life, fabulous.”

And what of Morgan, the sci-fi thriller that comes out next year in which she plays a young scientist?

“Again it’s the writing rather than the genre that attracted me. It was shot in Belfast early this year and we worked with some phenomenal actors, Paul Giamatti, Toby Jones, and it was Luke Scott, Ridley Scott’s son’s directorial debut. I’m in a secretive world working on genetically modified humans, then lines get blurred and an outsider is brought in. It gets a bit nasty…” Again with the nasty.

Back in London life is much more sedate for Leslie, with downtime spent “going to the pub with friends, and cooking. I enjoy shopping too.”

Although much rumour surrounded her relationship with co-star and on-screen love interest, the English actor Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow in Game Of Thrones, she has always remains tight-lipped about the series heart-throb. When asked if she has a boyfriend, she’s gracious but discreet.

“Yes, I’m in a relationship and I’m very happy.” And that’s your lot.

When we speak she’s just back from an audition that morning, but won’t talk about it for fear of hexing her chances.

“It might mean more travel…” is all she will say. Travel is something she loves. The steamy heat of Louisiana, Pennsylvania in the fall, oh, and for several snowy months, northern Iceland, while the other half of the Game Of Thrones cast basked in the heat of Malta and Morocco.

“Yes I remember going into the audition and they asked how I dealt with the cold. I bravely said I don’t mind the cold at all. I was brought up in Scotland in a cold house.”

Apart from a propensity for overstatement, stunt driving, for example, to impress casting directors, Leslie enjoys the process of auditioning and appreciates that she’s now in a great position to attract bigger roles.

“I love going into the room and proving my worth in front of producers and directors. On the same spectrum, rejection is a massive part of acting and you have to take it in your stride. You would be naive in wanting to become an actor and not having to take some knocks. It seeds the fire in your belly and you are able to look into yourself and test out how ambitious you are.”

And then Leslie says something surprising. Usually actors talk about their current projects, their next role and what they want to achieve into the future, unable to imagine a life other than the one they have created in the field of make believe. But Leslie has a sense that acting may not always be where she devotes her energies.

“Hopefully I will be working the next five to ten years and in productions with people I admire and am inspired by, where there are characters who resonate with an audience. I love that feeling of leaving the cinema unable to think. I just saw Carol and that was inspiring. Cate Blanchett is someone I’ve always admired. Monica Dolan and Olivia Colman too.”

And what else would she like to do, if we’re talking a potentially limited amount of time? Straight away she fires back: “Child psychology has always been my plan B. There are seven years’ training for that, so it’s something that shouldn’t be done half-heartedly. If this dries up, that is a real passion of mine that I would like to pursue.”

What was it that sparked the interest, was it being one of five? “That yes, but also I have seen through friends how much it can help a child and it’s an incredibly admirable job, so I’d like to think about that,” she says.

In the meantime, with the auditions flying in and the roles coming thick and fast, her career seems to be on the up and there’s no need for a plan B.

“I’m very fortunate to be working,” she says. “I’m in a very competitive industry with peaks and troughs and I’m able to live in London and support myself through what I love and aspire to, so I consider that a real blessing. In this industry it’s very difficult to find work and keep up the momentum, but I’ve managed it so far.”

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

• Luther is on BBC1 on Tuesday and 22 December at 9pm