‘Game of Thrones’ actress Rose Leslie on Ygritte’s last act

June 09, 2014 | 4:15 p.m.
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Arya (Maisie Williams) and the Hound (Rory McCann) meet some unexpected travelers. (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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Meera (Ellie Kendrick), Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Hodor (Kristian Nairn) on their way to the sacred tree. (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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A scene from "The Watchers on the Wall," the ninth episode of Season 4 of HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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A scene from "The Watchers on the Wall," the ninth episode of Season 4 of HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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A scene from "The Watchers on the Wall," the ninth episode of Season 4 of HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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Rose Leslie as Ygritte and Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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Oberyn (Pedro Pascal) and the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) in battle. (Macall B. Polay / HBO)

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Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) speaks harshly to her once-trusted adviser Jorah (Iain Glen) while Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) looks on. (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) rewards his bastard son Ramsay (Iwan Rheon). (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) sits on the Iron Throne as judge at Tyrion's trial. (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) advises his brother (Peter Dinklage). (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) is crowned king by the High Septon (Paul Bentley). (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Arya (Maisie Williams) shows the Hound (Rory McCann) her sword-fighting moves. (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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The lead mutineer (Burn Gorman) threatens Bran's friends (Ellie Kendrick and Thomas Brodie-Sangster). (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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The Lannisters pay their respects to the fallen King Joffrey. With Lena Headey, Dean-Charles Chapman, Jack Gleeson and Charles Dance. (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) to the supposed rescue of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) gives Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) a lesson on his power. (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Natalie Dormer in Sunday's episode of "Game of Thrones," "The Lion and the Rose," written by George R.R. Martin.

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Natalie Dormer and Gwendoline Christie in a scene from "Game of Thrones." (Macall B. Polay / HBO)

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Jacob Anderson and Nathalie Emmanuel in a scene from "Game of Thrones." (Macall B. Polay / HBO)

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Michiel Huisman, Nathalie Emmanuel and Emilia Clarke in a scene from "Game of Thrones." (Macall B. Polay / HBO)

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Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage in a scene from "Game of Thrones." (Neil Davidson / HBO)

When Scottish actress Rose Leslie landed the role of the Wildling warrior Ygritte in “Game of Thrones,” she immediately turned to the George R.R. Martin novels that inspired the hit HBO series, a saga known as “A Song of Ice and Fire,” to learn more about the world she would inhabit on the show. Meaning that she had fair warning that her character, a member of a proud tribe that resides in the uncharted lands beyond the Wall, would eventually meet with a grim fate.

Her character finally joined the show’s many departed souls in this Sunday’s episode, “The Watchers on the Walls,” the ninth installment of Season 4.

“I was well aware that Ygritte’s death was going to happen,” said Leslie. “I was secretly rather pleased that it was going to be in the penultimate episode because you know that everything is building up to Episode 9. It was wonderful to go out with a bang.”

QUIZ: Test your ‘Thrones’ knowledge

Ever since the show beheaded its ostensible protagonist — the wise patriarch Eddard Stark, played by Sean Bean — in the ninth episode of the first season, “Game of Thrones” has developed a reputation for visiting cruel and surprising fates upon its characters. But the unflinching nature of the narrative appears only to have enhanced the show’s appeal.

This season, “Game of Thrones” has become the most watched series in HBO history, surpassing even “The Sopranos” in popularity.

Even the cast members understand that their characters could die at any time.

“That’s the beauty of the show,” said the 27-year-old Scottish actress in a telephone interview. “No one is safe.”

While Ygritte is hardly the first notable character to meet her demise this season — so far this year the little-loved King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) was poisoned at his wedding feast and Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) had his eyes gouged out and his head smashed open by a towering opponent in open combat — her end proved especially heartbreaking, even poetic.

Rose Leslie in a scene from "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan / HBO)

Rose Leslie in a scene from “Game of Thrones.” (Helen Sloan / HBO)

Determined to exact vengeance on her former lover Jon Snow (Kit Harington), she helped lead the raid on Castle Black, while the King of the Wildlings, Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds), and his army of 100,000 men, mammoths and giants stormed the Wall that serves as the northern border of Westeros. Amid the chaos, Ygritte suffered a fatal wound and died in Snow’s arms.

“Kit Harington and I had spoken beforehand, and neither of us really ever wanted to rehearse the death scene,” Leslie said. “We wanted to make it as organic as possible, so we did it there in the moment. If I had taken time to think about it too much then I think I would have been way too emotional before the scene had even started. I think that was the best way to approach it, and I’m glad he agreed.”

Previously known for her work on the period costume drama “Downton Abbey,” Leslie, a graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, made her “Game of Thrones” debut in 2012. The feisty redhead with a talent for handling a bow and arrow encountered a hostile party of Night’s Watch rangers that included Snow, who spared her life and briefly took her hostage.

She responded by mercilessly taunting him with the refrain, “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” and referring to him as a “crow,” a Wildling epithet for the members of the Night’s Watch.

“She’s a strong woman and she has some brilliant characteristics,” Leslie said. “She’s incredibly loyal, but not to the extent that she doesn’t waver. I think she’s willing to listen to other arguments. But she knows who she is, she knows what she wants and I think those are very good attributes to have. I admire that in her. It’s inspirational, I think, for all women.”

Just as in the novels, however, Ygritte and Jon’s relationship blossomed into a doomed romance, with Snow’s duty to his sworn brothers winning out over his affection for the Wildling. (Not one to take rejection lightly, Ygritte shot him with several arrows as he rode away on horseback after making his choice.)

“From the outset, Kit and myself got on, which is a lovely thing,” Leslie said of her frequent screen partner. “It’s a blessing for any actor who’s going to be working with you, the fact you actually get on off screen. The dialogue we had off screen helped with the chemistry and the fiery, tempestuous relationship they have on screen. That was lovely. I think with the years that we have spent working together that’s been able to flourish in its own way.”

Although Leslie spent much of her “Game of Thrones” tenure shooting on location in Iceland, “The Watchers on the Walls” was filmed over the course of two-and-a-half weeks last year in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with at least 100 extras and an army of stuntmen used to depict the ranks of the Wildling horde.

She said she enjoyed filming the action scenes and tapping into Ygritte’s inner fighter; she’s even developed an interest in archery from her time in the role.

“She is so dominant, she is very much a Wildling to the bone,” Leslie said. “She is a warrior at the core; she’s a woman on a mission. She has to find Jon Snow; she has to make him pay. It’s kind of a narrow mindset she’s got going so that is very empowering. She has this goal that she needs to reach.”

Leslie filmed her final scene nearly nine months ago, and the actress said that watching the episode over the weekend with a friend in New Orleans, where she is currently shooting the indie “Sticky Notes” for director Amanda Harlib, brought back some powerful memories.

“Once I had died in Jon Snow’s arms, that was it. I got very emotional, I was very raw,” Leslie said. “It had just been such a phenomenal experience for me. I blubbed like a little baby. Once the scene was done, I was surrounded by crew and producers and presented with a wrap gift, which was my bow, Ygritte’s bow. The handle was replaced with white leather and on one side they had sewn on a silver plaque that was engraved with ‘Kissed by fire,’ and then on the other side was the emblem of a rose. That just made me cry even more.”

– Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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