People are often crushed when they hear actor Rose Leslie speak for the first time. “They’re like: ‘That doesn’t sound right! You’re lying! You’re not her!’” she says with a self-deprecating chuckle.
The “her” being Game of Thrones’ wildling warrior Ygritte, and the crushing sensation being disappointment that Leslie sounds nothing like her most famous character delivering her catchphrase, “You know nothing, Jon Snow”.
Even with manners as lovely as Leslie’s, disappointment is sometimes inevitable: “Say, you’re with your mates and having a nice time in a beer garden and someone asks you to do it. You’d feel a bit like a performing monkey if you put on the accent.” This is the major downside of being talented and successful — you’re for ever confronting strangers with the unwelcome reminder that TV isn’t real life.
Game of Thrones fans can at least be comforted by the knowledge that the real Leslie also hails from “beyond the wall”, in rural Aberdeenshire, where she was raised in her father’s ancestral home, a castle on the outskirts of a village which, until a few years ago, wasn’t even on the map.
Five years of boarding school in southern England at Millfield did it for her Scottish accent but it was a Scottish Bafta New Talent award for her role in the Edinburgh drama New Town which, in 2009, launched Leslie’s screen career.
Since then she’s played a housemaid in Downton Abbey (the contrast with her own “above stairs” upbringing was much remarked on), Idris Elba’s foil in Luther and a ruthless killer in Channel 4’s cult hit Utopia. In many ways, though, it’s her latest character in The Good Wife’s new spin-off, The Good Fight (Thursdays, 9pm, More4), that’s least likely to cause crushing moments in a pub beer garden.
Maia Rindell is a natural hard-worker born into a life of privilege in Chicago. As the series opens, she’s just passed the bar and is about to embark on an illustrious legal career with the help of her well-placed godmother, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski).
Then an unforeseen misfortune turns the world against Maia and she’s forced to strike out on her own, eventually taking up a junior position at the firm where Lucca (Cush Jumbo) now works. Good Wife fans, you will not be disappointed: The Good Fight is as compelling, stylish and subtly progressive as its much-loved predecessor.
The show’s three female leads share top-billing but only Leslie’s character is a total newbie. “There was a lovely blurring of the lines with Maia not really knowing what to do and me not really knowing how to present myself in terms of talking to the witness and then to the judge,” she says. “I really could draw on that.”
Maia is also in a long-term relationship with another woman, although since this detail is not a source of drama in the show, perhaps it’s hardly worth mentioning? “Do you know what? I love that!” nods Leslie with friendly enthusiasm. “Because that’s the way the Kings [husband and wife showrunners, Michelle and Robert King] wrote about it and that’s also, I feel, the only way to be in a relationship — just for it to be the fact and to move on.”
It’s much harder to avoid mentioning her fan-delighting, onscreen-death-defying, real-life romance with actor Kit Harington, better known to the Game of Thrones-watching public as Jon “you know nothing” Snow.
During that period of 2015 and 2016, when Snow’s apparent demise was all anyone with a TV set could talk about, Leslie was repeatedly forced to fib in interviews. She knew what happened next (“Because I was like: ‘Come on! What is it?’”) but had been sworn to secrecy by the man himself.
“Of course you don’t want to lie to anybody’s face but I felt that it wasn’t my place to let the cat out of the bag… I’d promised Kit I wouldn’t say anything. It’s just keeping your word, isn’t it?” And of course there was an element of professional pride. “You’re a little bit like: ‘Well, we pretend for a living, so…’”
So if you couldn’t fool a few journalists, what kind of actor would you be?
Ygritte and Leslie share a taste in men but that’s where the similarities end. Leslie doesn’t typically accessorise animal furs with a crossbow either, favouring instead strong primary colours to set off her striking red hair.
When we meet at a café near her north London home she’s just finished a class at “this lovely little gym” around the corner and thrown on a smart jumper over her workout clothes. It’s the same shade of scarlet as the sheer Christian Dior gown she wore to this year’s Olivier Awards, accompanied by Harington looking equally glam in a tux.
After our interview, she’s going to visit a friend who has recently had a baby and, over the summer, she’ll take a few months off to go travelling, again with Harington in tow.
It’s a nice life and Leslie knows it. She’s full of gratitude for all the writers who have created her roles, affection for her colleagues and uses the word “lucky” to describe herself a total of six times over the course of our conversation.
If she was to permit herself a minor whinge it would be about never having been sent a script for the new Power Rangers movie. “I’m livid! Oh my God, I genuinely would have fulfilled a childhood dream!” And not just her dream either but also that of her two younger siblings.
The family WhatsApp group is currently blowing up with plans for a cinema trip. “We used to have supper and then go out and play Power Rangers in the garden. I was yellow. We did that whole think of putting our hands in and being like: ‘It’s morphin’ time!’”
Still, what a lucky woman, she says, to have had that idyllic childhood as the middle of five children, to be working in a job she loves, while still being based in her favourite city, London.
She can even summon some gratitude for that catchphrase. “This industry is very like: ‘I want to get the next job and the next job’ and so it becomes all-encompassing and self-involved… But being 30 now, I’m a bit like: ‘You lucky bitch, you’re still living in London, you’re still able to feed yourself, you’ve got to make an impact!’ When you’re this fortunate, you’ve got to make an impact.”
In which area will Leslie focus her energies? She’s long been an advocate of Scotland staying in the UK. “A couple of years ago I stuck with being a Unionist and I am still there … I’m fully aware of how that comes across, having got an English accent.”
Living and working in New York, though, has broadened her horizons further. At the beginning of the year she joined the rest of The Good Fight’s cast and crew for the Women’s March on Washington (coaches were laid on). There was, she says, “the most extraordinary sense of uniting together with hope with dignity”.
Informed, optimistic and possessed of mighty morphin’ powers, Leslie may not have found her own good fight yet — but when the day comes, she’s ready.
Follow Ellen E Jones on Twitter: @MsEllenEJones