After a long wait, this weekend’s “Game of Thrones” on HBO finally introduces one of its most beloved and fiery females — the wildling Ygritte, played by Rose Leslie.
When the first cast shot of the actress in character was released several weeks ago, it was met with a flurry of online enthusiasm from fans elated to see the show’s take on the unique Ygritte, a favorite from the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series from author George R.R. Martin.
Speaking to AccessHollywood.com ahead of Sunday’s episode, the naturally redheaded Rose said she put great care into bringing the wildling spitfire to life, diving heavily into the novels as her source material, as she worked to capture the wildling woman’s independent and utterly fierce personality.
In the same way the introduction to female knight Brienne of Tarth gave fans goose bumps across the globe in the third episode this season, in just days, Ygritte is about to make an equally big impression.
Steering clear of spoilers (we’ll have more for you on her character next week), the delightful actress, who has the most charmingly hearty laugh, took Access through the casting process, joining the series, and what viewers should know ahead of Sunday’s big episode.
AccessHollywood.com: So before we get into ‘Game of Thrones,’ a lot of people are going to recognize you as Gwen, the maid-turned-secretary in Season 1 of ‘Downton Abbey.’ Would you be interested in a cameo if they were to call?
Rose Leslie: There is no way I would ever say, ‘No.’ I had the most fantastic time filming ‘Downton.’ I really did, so I would love to go back, but… I was always told that I would only ever be in the first [season]. I always knew that my character would have a happy ending at the end of it all. [Leaving the show] didn’t come as a shock… But it was fantastic. I loved it.
Access: Did the people at ‘Game of Thrones’ know you from ‘Downton’? Did you think it helped at all when you were called to audition?
Rose: I definitely think it opened doors for me and what was so fantastic about ‘Downton’ being showed over in the states, was that it helped get me noticed and I know that [‘GOT’ executive producer] David Benioff actually mentioned it to me, I think it was on my first kind of audition going for Ygritte. He was like, ‘We’ve seen you in ‘Downton Abbey’ and we like the whole like Northern accents thing.’ And I [thought], ‘Oh! Great! Well, obviously that was working in my favor.’ So, yeah… I definitely think it helped me, which is lovely.
Access: You’ve said you went for your ‘GOT’ audition and it was full of redheaded girls – more than you’d ever seen in one place…
Rose: There’s so many of us (laughs).
Access: Did you feel a bit like, ‘I’m with my people now’?
Rose: I so did. I was like, ‘I’m back with my crew, my true, true crew. All of us redheads together in one room.’ It was amazing and I’m sure I’m not the only redheaded girl in that room who thought the same thing. You kind of looked around and you’re like, ‘Wow, this so cool. Guys, we gotta go for a drink. This is amazing, this has never happened to me before where there’s more than five people who are redheads in one room.’
Access: What was your first reaction when you found out you’d been cast? Were you screaming?
Rose: I did. I jumped for joy. I was walking down the street so I was kind of surrounded by strangers and they must have thought I was like completely just a massive weirdo because I know that I jumped up and down and kind of was like ‘You’re joking! You’re joking!’ kind of thing to [my manager]. He’s like ‘No, no, no.’ It was amazing news. I was very, very happy.
Access: Had you actually watched it before?
Rose: I had heard of it through a lot of guy friends… [They] were saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got to watch this new fantasy show on HBO. It’s absolutely amazing,’ and so that’s how I first came across ‘Game of Thrones,’ and then I started watching it and then when I knew I was going in for the audition, I decided to clue myself up and started… reading the books and watching all the episodes.
Access: When they found out that you got the job, did those friends freak out?
Rose: (Laughs) Yeah! I think they were freaking out. My brothers and sisters actually kind of freaked out more, because my brothers are big fans of the show. They’re huge kind of fantasy fans anyway, so they were really, really excited for me. They didn’t believe me at first. They’re like, ‘You’re lying.’ I was like, ‘No, I promise you I’m not.’
Access: Here’s the fun one… when did you figure out how to pronounce your character name?
Rose: Oh, I know (laughs)!
Access: I saw George Martin at the Emmys last year and I asked him if they had cast your role. He couldn’t understand what I was talking about because I butchered your character name. Eventually he figured it out and pronounced it back to me properly, but differently than I expected.
Rose: Did he? Well I kind of got it wrong at the beginning… When the scripts came through to me — what’s very lovely is… there’s a kind of breakdown of how to properly pronounce all the characters names and… silly me, I kind of misread it, so I got it that it was ‘eye-grit.’ I thought, ‘That is a really weird pronunciation!’ But it was completely my fault [for] pronouncing it that way. And then I was corrected by David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss, ‘GOT’ executive producer]. They’re like, ‘No… This is how it’s actually said.’ We’ve actually gone for ‘eee-grit.’ But it’s a tricky one.
Access: So Sunday is coming. What people have seen so far in the sneak preview is Jon Snow holding a sword to your character’s throat. What do you want people to know about Ygritte before Sunday’s episode?
Rose: Well, essentially, because Ygritte is a wildling… what really struck a chord with me, what I loved about her, was her independence and her ruthlessness. She is tough. She has lived in this difficult terrain all her life and you know, she’s very kind of strong willed and I suppose I love that about her. And she bites back. In the scenes Jon Snow and I have, she doesn’t let him kind of have one up on her, she bites back and she fights, which is great.
Access: People will see another strong female this weekend.
Rose: To add to the pile. I couldn’t agree more.
For more of our interview with Rose, log back on to AccessHollywood.com the week of May 7.