From Downton Abbey to Game Of Thrones, Rose Leslie has excelled at playing British characters. Now after joining The Good Wife’s spin-off, she’s about to hit the big time in America – just don’t make her give up her beloved Heinz baked beans
Words: Georgie Lane-Godfrey
Photography: Thanassis Krikis
Rose Leslie is distracted. Outside her window in Brooklyn a passer-by has fallen over on a patch of black ice and she can’t stop giggling. Storm Stella recently hit and New York has only just re-emerged from the state of emergency called by its mayor. It’s fine to laugh, she tells me, because the passer-by has got up and walked off, but she’s now positioned herself away from the window in case any more slapstick comedy strikes.
Although she’s a big fan of comedy, the Scottish-born actress made her name playing serious-minded characters who are British to the bone. She first came to attention in 2010 as Gwen, a housemaid who betters herself and waved goodbye to Downton Abbey before the end of the first series. Next, in that other globally successful television juggernaut Game Of Thrones, she nailed the Yorkshire accent playing the fiery wildling Ygritte, Jon Snow’s enemy-turned-lover. There has also been a brief spell as a policewoman alongside Idris Elba in Luther.
Right now, Leslie is feeling a bit nostalgic for ol’ Blighty, which may explain why she’s binge-watching The Replacement and This Country on BBC iPlayer. “I am obsessed with This Country,” she confesses. “The script is so astute about who they are representing – it manages to find the delicate balance of being truthful without belittling.” It’s been five months since the 30-year-old left her London flat for America to play a role that is completely different to her previous work: a high-flying lawyer in modern day Chicago.
In The Good Fight – a new 10-episode spin-off from the eminently watchable The Good Wife, which finished last year after seven series – senior partner of the parent show’s law firm Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) loses her life savings in a financial scam. But, in the tenacious female fashion of the original show, she sets up shop afresh with her goddaughter Maia Rindell (played by Leslie) and Lucca Quinn (played by fellow Brit Cush Jumbo) in another distinguished Chicago legal firm. Already critically acclaimed in the US, The Good Fight does not shy away from contemporary politics, covering topics such as fake news and police brutality.
Leslie admits that the opportunity to live in New York for five months while filming the show was a perk she couldn’t refuse, but Brooklyn is a long way from her family’s 15th-century castle in Aberdeenshire where she grew up with her four siblings (a stint in a Somerset boarding school put paid to her Scottish burr) before arriving in London aged 18 to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). Her background may be lofty but in conversation Leslie is anything but. She is naturally warm, engaging, laughs often (and hard) and has impeccable manners. Until someone falls over on a patch of ice, that is...
With the success of Downton Abbey and Game Of Thrones, it seems like you have the golden touch when it comes to choosing TV shows to work on. What attracted you to The Good Fight?
I was late to the party with The Good Wife but so many of my friends loved it. When I finally gave it a go, I thought the writing was fantastic and I was pulled in by the fact that [writers] Michelle and Robert King wrote so powerfully and beautifully for women. The characters are intelligent, passionate women who are struggling with climbing the prickly ladder to the top of the legal profession. It’s not an easy path but the story lines aren’t obvious. The script was completely engrossing.
It features a lot of strong women who show a sense of solidarity with one another. How significant is that element to the show?
There is definitely an aura and an atmosphere on set, which hopefully translates on screen, of solidarity among all the female lawyers within this particular firm. You don’t see perfect women who can juggle all the aspects of their lives. They are struggling with the workplace environment. Something that I greatly believe in is the fight that one should have for those who are being unjustly targeted, and I think the writers execute this brilliantly by highlighting the political climate right now in the US. I don’t necessarily believe that I should be a political commentator but I’m proud to be working on a show that feels it has a duty to hold up a mirror to the political landscape and therefore provide an element of accountability.
Was there anything that bonded you and Cush Jumbo as Brits on set?
It sounds ridiculous but honestly, from the beginning it was tea. We were asked whether we wanted water on set and both Cush and I replied, “Er, can we have some tea?” We fell into the trap of being a cliché but the first thing that bonded us was our love for tea.
What have you found challenging about working away from home?
I’ve missed my friends’ 30th birthdays and I’ve missed weddings. But please, that’s fine, this is not a violin session right now. I am working with some wonderful people, but I do miss the pub, our sh*t weather, being able to hop on the Victoria Line and cross the city. But that’s only because I’ve lived in London for about 11 years and I very much consider it home. But I have most certainly embraced New York, it’s a fabulous city.
Was growing up in a castle in the Scottish countryside as idyllic as it sounds?
My siblings and I spent most of our days rolling around in puddles, clambering through bushes and climbing trees – it was glorious. As soon as I hear a wood pigeon I’m immediately transported back there. It’s the one place on earth where I feel very settled and grounded and at peace. My parents still live there and it’s an amazing place to come home to.
In The Good Fight, your character Maia comes from a very privileged background but is desperate to prove her own worth. Is that something you’ve ever identified with?
I was never oblivious [to] the challenges that an actor would face leaving drama school. At the time I felt lucky to get into LAMDA. Then you’re going to need a huge amount of luck on your side. I loved it so much though; there was never a feeling of having to prove my worth to anyone.
Ygritte’s most famous line – “You know nothing, Jon Snow” – has now become a catchphrase. How did you become so talented at accents?
At drama school we had an hour-long accent lesson every other day for almost three years. One of the dialects I responded to most was the northern one and I ended up playing a northern lass in a touring production for five months before Game Of Thrones, which was lucky as it helped me sound relatively authentic. There are still so many I can’t do though. I long to be able to do a South African accent but I’m terrible at it and am too ashamed to attempt it in public.
If you weren’t an actor, what would be your Plan B career?
I would have pursued a career in psychology – it’s so interesting. I think this leads into why I am an actor – it’s a fascination I have always had with behaviour, body language and the reasoning behind why one reacts the way they do.
I read that Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow in Game Of Thrones, told a police officer about his character’s fate to get out of a speeding ticket. Is there anything you would spill Game Of Thrones secrets for?
Probably something horribly self-involved like getting into a Bear’s Den gig. I happened to see them when they were here a couple of months ago and they packed out the Williamsburg Music Hall. I respectfully paid for that ticket but if I couldn’t have seen them? Well, I would be tempted... But I don’t know any spoilers. I’m actually completely clueless as to what is going to happen next season.
What do you do to switch off?
I am currently in Williamsburg and there is a pottery studio about two blocks away from me, so in the evenings I’ve been taking classes to entertain myself. So far I’ve made a couple of bowls and handle-less mugs – there’s no way I could set a handle on there! I’d like to think I’m channelling Demi Moore in Ghost but I really am so bad at it. The lovely instructor does most of it for me.
Finally, what’s the first thing you’ll do when you get back to London?
Have some baked beans on toast. I was devastated when the supermarket here didn’t have Heinz ones and I don’t trust the American version. They are my ultimate home comfort.
The Good Fight starts on More4 on 30 March at 9pm