Plucked from Britain’s prestigious LAMDA drama school and brought into two of the most acclaimed cable series of the past decade, Rose Leslie has always pursued a unique opportunity rather than a safe bet. “I hope to be doing this for the rest of my life,” the actress explained recently in Los Angeles as we discussed her first psychological horror film, director Leigh Janiak’s “Honeymoon.” “And personally, I feel to have longevity is to try different things, not burn out too fast, and to keep people always guessing.”
First playing the ambitious maid Gwen Dawson in the first season of “Downton Abbey,” Leslie then switched to the Wilding character of Ygritte in “Game of Thrones,” where she shouldered one-half of a signature relationship, as well as uttering an iconic catchphrase. But in “Honeymoon,” she tackles an impressive trifecta of challenges: body horror, an American accent, and a presence in nearly every frame.
Leslie plays Bea, a New Yorker newly married to Paul (Harry Treadaway). The pair set off to Canada for a weekend in her family’s isolated cabin, but naturally only a few nights pass before a bizarre incident places their relationship in a new light, one that makes Paul wonder exactly how well he knows his new wife. Both actors anchor the increasingly unsettling drama, and their dynamic is part of why we described it as “the kind of movie that worms its way underneath your skin” in our SXSW review. Below, Leslie explains how she got into the proper mindset for one of the year’s finest horror films.
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There’s a very specific tone of dread that Leigh handles in the film, and when it grows heavy, like the cabin scenes in the finale, Leigh said that they were filmed over several days. It sounds draining, but what was the feeling on set between you and Harry acting it?
Draining is a very good word. I think Leigh —rather wonderfully— scheduled the finale pretty much at the end of the shoot. So we already had a rapport between the three of us prior to shooting and during. It was such a quick, quick shoot.
24 days, right?
Yeah, super fast. And within that time there was already a foundation; we had already gauged one another in the way that we approached things. So by the time we got to the final scenes and knew that it was going to be a two, three-day shoot, we just jumped into the deep end. We really lived in that horrifying moment and appreciated just how horrifying it would be for anyone in that situation.
There’s no way I could’ve prepared myself emotionally for [SPOILER]. That is solely kind of in your own headspace, and I think, rightly or wrongly, I did stay within that bubble and never really left that set until I had to. And the crew was so respectful and totally understanding of that process.
The film is set in Canada, you filmed in North Carolina, your characters are from New York. Were you challenged constantly with nailing down that American accent?
I think if a Southern drawl or anything did creep in, Leigh was immediately on it. And playing opposite Harry, who’s obviously another Brit, we would pick each other up if we felt that we were both sliding back into our natural accents. For me, and I’m doing a slight disservice to myself here, but I think I can only really do one American accent. We like to call it “General American.”
And that’s aiming for close to a broad Midwestern accent?
Yes. I don’t know how Harry felt basing his accent, but I did feel that if I were thinking too much about the accent I would start to focus on the voice rather than the tone of a scene. I wanted to stay true to the particular scenes rather than being too self-conscious. Fingers crossed that it came out okay.
You caught success back-to-back on an international scale with “Downton Abbey,” and then Game of Thrones. Was there a daunting moment where you realized that sort of hype and passionate audience was happening again? Are you one to easily handle that sort of exposure?
Well, with “Downton” I had left before the success really hit; I already knew that my character had a happy ending at the end of the first season. Obviously though as a cast and crew we knew that we were part of something of incredibly high quality, with Julian Fellowes writing and people like Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville acting.
Ignorance was bliss with “Game of Thrones” — I sort of thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t heard of the following behind the books when I auditioned for Ygritte. The first time it really hit me was San Diego Comic Con, my first year at Comic Con. It was only then where I was thought, “Oh, good god.”
How fabulous though — there’s so much loyalty and passion, and you feel so well taken care of with HBO. I feel like the pressure was never really there on set because everyone was like family. I certainly felt that, having gone back three years in a row, I was so happy to be back shooting in Iceland or Belfast. You become unaware that, “Oh, this is going to be watched by millions.”
You picked up archery on the show as well?
Yeah, it’s a wonderful perk, being able to play such a cool character as Ygritte and doing archery training so that she looked authentic — like she was a warrior, and a true Wilding killing her food. I was flown out to Belfast to really get to grips with the pulling of the arrow and replacing it in the bow, making it look like as fluid as possible and as though she’d been doing it forever. HBO and the production team were phenomenal. They wanted to invest, and I know they did that sort of thing with every actor and character in the show.
Because there was so much time and effort put into the training, stepping away you suddenly have a real affinity for it. And now I genuinely love archery. I find it really therapeutic and settling. And how wonderful to be able to walk away from a job and pick up something like that. I’m in no way as good as Ygritte, but it’s something that I never would’ve tried without the show.
A lot of people have assumed you’re were from the North of England from that show, but I’ve noticed you’ve emphasized your Scottish heritage in advance of the Referendum vote.
I have, and I’ve been on one side for a very long time now. I’m pro-union and utterly hope that Scotland stays within the United Kingdom. I’m approaching September 18th with a bit of trepidation. It’s going to be a close call, and I’m incredibly scared for my country.
I’m Scottish but I also feel British at that same time. It’s strength in numbers and I feel that we have a real platform by being part of the UK. And if we become an independent country we’re then going to be ruled by the EU and that is a very scary thought, in the sense that I don’t feel we’re going to have a voice. We are a small country. And look where the Euro’s gone. What’s our currency going to be?
Because the pound is due to possibly drop away?
Absolutely, and with no sort of plan B. And what I find absolutely unsettling is that it’s irreversible. This is going to be our country now for the rest of my life, whereby we’re not part of the UK. And that makes me so upset.
Do you have strong family ties to Scotland still?
My parents live there, and I was born and raised in Scotland. I lived there for the first 11 years of my life, until my parents decided to take our family to France where we lived for a couple of years. We then moved back to Scotland, and that is where I feel most home — where I come back to myself, and I love more than I can say.
Has activism always been a central part of your life?
Not really. I know my beliefs. I know where I stand on issues and concerns and I feel that there is the right platform to tackle those concerns. And if you’re lucky enough to have a voice on something you have knowledge, then speak your mind, but only really for things for which you have an input.
“Honeymoon” will be released in theatres and on VOD from Magnolia Pictures on September 12.