Rose Leslie and her baby son have Covid. “Day three. It is fairly grim,” she says. You’d never guess: she’s perky and bright in a stripy T-shirt, endlessly patient and accommodating when our Zoom collapses, greeting my every trite observation with enthusiasm (“You’re so right, Emma”). It’s hard not to feel she has “trouper” stamped through her like a stick of seaside rock.
I wonder if that preternaturally cheery thoughtfulness is part of the reason Leslie accumulates plum roles in prestige TV franchises like Brownie badges. After winning a Scottish Bafta straight out of drama school for her portrayal of a naive Hebridean student in the dark comedy, New Town, she was cast in Downton Abbey as ambitious housemaid-with-notions, Gwen Dawson. In Game of Thrones – of which, inevitably, more later – she’s insolent, mocking, rabbit-skin-clad Ygritte, the wildling who captivates Jon Snow, played by Harington, her future real-life husband. She holds her own in the glitzy, ambitious legal drama The Good Fight, opposite the likes of Christine Baranski and a gleefully OTT Michael Sheen. Most recently, she played Suranne Jones’s quietly gritty colleague and love interest in 2021’s bonkers but enjoyable BBC submarine thriller, Vigil.
Now – this is what has forced her from her sickbed – she’s the titular Time Traveler’s Wife, Clare, in HBO’s new six-parter, adapted by Steven Moffat from Audrey Niffenegger’s bestseller. Theo James plays Henry, the time traveller, who revisits his life – and Clare – with chaotic consequences. Leslie is an emotionally intelligent, steadying presence, with enough backbone to be interesting, but I’m not sure it’s the most fun role of her life: as her character says, “I wait and I worry.”
I can see why she took it on, though. After all those ensemble shows, The Time Traveler’s Wife is indubitably a step up. Its success or failure turns on the two leads: does that create an extra anxiety? “There was a moment – it wasn’t at the beginning of the shoot – but it kind of dawned on both of us that if people don’t like what either of us are doing, then we’re kind of screwed,” she says. “There was that added element of pressure, but it was one I decided not to read too much into. Noticing that it was there, but also realising it wasn’t going to be serving me at all.”
I like that observation: it would have been easy to say “Ooh, yes, I wasn’t sure I was worthy.” But Leslie is 35, 12 years into her career, and had a baby just before filming started. She was eight months pregnant during the audition process, which meant “I felt like I was in a win-win situation, which is an extraordinary position to be in. I’ve never really felt that before walking into any audition. On the one hand I felt, what a fantastic character to play on top of the fact that with our new little family, what an adventure to head out to New York for six months! Then, bizarrely, on the flip side, I almost felt that I’d gain bonus time with our boy had I not managed to get the part. I was kind of relieved of a little bit of the pressure and nervousness that does get you through an audition, but can have a tendency to tip me over the edge.”
Leslie got the part, and she and Harington upped sticks from their London base for New York when the baby was 10 weeks old. A lead role, a mind-meltingly complex shoot and a newborn must have been brutal, but Harington, she says, knew the score. “My husband and I were well aware that with this undertaking he would be doing the night shifts. How brilliant is that? A loving husband being, like, ‘No, don’t you worry, every time he cries, it’s going to be on me.’” She’s typically chipper about this – she had “a wonderful little smug smile every time he did cry” – but there were obviously other feelings at play in her hectic experience of new motherhood. Working hard through that time, “There’s part of me that feels I’ve blacked out the first three months of our boy’s life,” she says.
That was on top of the usual maelstrom of emotions of birth, which blindsided her. “I had only ever come across the narrative of ‘When your newborn is in your arms, or when he’s placed on your chest, your purpose is here and everything makes sense and this little light is everything that you’ve ever wished for,’” she says. “Going into labour, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait for this magical moment!’ I am not taking anything away from that moment – obviously it’s magical – but it was many other emotions as well. And it took me a while to process what they were, and because of that, I think it’s quite important to speak about it. Because I’m not the only one who feels this way. You feel like you’re somehow already on the back foot if you’re experiencing anything but love.”
Leslie’s son had a very different start in life from her own. Born Rose Arbuthnot-Leslie, she grew up in rural Aberdeenshire at Lickleyhead Castle, ancestral seat of her father, Sebastian, the Leslie clan chieftain (and sometime Tory councillor and pro-Brexit campaigner; Leslie herself campaigned for the Scottish Tories in 2015); her equally aristocratic mother, Candida, is descended from Charles II. Much has been made of this, but for a Briton who has watched plenty of those reality TV shows where cash-strapped aristos are forced to sell a Gainsborough to redo the castle roof, it mainly sounds cold. (“Bone-deep cold,” she confirms. “People can’t wrap their head around the fact we couldn’t double glaze.”) The middle of five children, “super subconsciously” she wonders if the urge to perform came from being keen to distinguish herself from a sporty brother and an academic sister; it was also an environment that demanded extroversion. “There were loud booming voices from all of us: you had to very much make yourself be heard if you wanted your point to be put across, in a very loving, accepting way.” On top of that, with the nearest neighbours a 25-minute drive away, they were bored and performed to amuse each other. “We were stuck with one another. We did a lot of mucking about,” she laughs. “Essentially trying to kill time. I was just happy my parents had as many kids as they did.”
Leslie went to Lamda. Did drama school prepare her for working constantly since graduation, which surely isn’t typical for most young actors? She hasn’t worked as relentlessly as her CV suggests, she says. She thinks it’s right, too, that drama school prepares students for “a competitive industry where you’ve got fresh meat churned out every single year: it’s not like you’re the darling buds for years and years after you graduate.” But she agrees a good run of roles creates its own stresses. It’s about “Keeping that momentum going. You’re trying to work out, is this a character I’ve never played before, will this show me in a different light?”
She’s navigated that skilfully: surely getting Game of Thrones so young was the jackpot. She agrees. “I couldn’t believe my luck: I was standing on the edge of a beautiful mountain with this incredible landscape ahead of me and a camera crew behind me and I was, what, 24? I was having the time of my life.” It’s also where she met Harington: she’s the one with the famous “You know nothing, Jon Snow” line. They married in 2018, in Aberdeenshire at another Leslie clan castle. They’re lovely on screen together: funny, and warm. Has the hysteria died down? Can they go out without Thrones heckles? “I feel like I’ve always been able to do this. I feel very fortunate to be able to walk down the road and not get asked to say ‘You know nothing’, but because it happens so rarely, if I ever do get asked, I’ll be like, ‘Yes, of course!’” Mainly, she says, people are “Respectful of the fact you’re going into Sainsbury’s”. The pair were in the news recently for discussing Harington’s prior alcohol addiction. “This was in 2019,” she told Harpers Bazaar, “so we’re now several years into his sobriety.” Would they work together again? If they do, she says she’d “sabotage the entire process” by laughing. “We know each other too well. But who knows? Never say never.”
In The Good Fight, Leslie’s Maia Rindell has the most satisfying arc, from put-upon junior lawyer to defiant in gold-heeled boots and shades. Her final scene is driving off into the sunset with Michael Sheen’s reprobate Roland Blum in his Rolls-Royce: it’s air-punchingly joyful. She deflects my praise into praise for others: Robert and Michelle King, who created the show, and Sheen, “He’s the most fantastic person to work opposite. He was calm and collected and reassuring.” Then for Christine Baranski: “I adore that woman. It’s a real joy, but also comforting, seeing her look her best and being, like, ‘You’re a badass bitch, you’re so cool and you’re charging into that room with a Gucci jacket.’ I love it.”
From Sheen to Phyllis Logan, she often works with acting royalty. I wonder what’s she learned from them about navigating the profession. She singles out Suranne Jones. “Seeing how she balances her work life and family life, being the most fantastic mother to their son, but also having an understated aura on set, a calming, reassuring aura. She was able to juggle all these different elements with knowing you set the tone for the entire set as number one, and she did that through just being herself.”
It’s obvious why that resonated, as she navigates capturing “a balance that works for all of us”. For now, being a parent comes first: “I felt like I had kind of short-changed my experience as a mum in the early stages of his life by working as hard as I did,” she says, so, “When I finished in October, I just committed to being mum. I really have done nothing but that and I’m very happy to be currently living it.” Her and Harington’s projects have dovetailed well so far, but she knows it’s temporary. “I’m sure there will be a time down the road where we’ll both see a project that we both separately wish to do and there will be a coin toss.”
She describes herself as self-critical: “Self-doubt seems to hang around, doesn’t it?” she says at one point. But she’s strikes me as quietly full of hard-won self-knowledge. “Having a baby is a hell of a distraction from your own neuroses!” Her attitude to work has shifted fundamentally: “Work is fantastic, but it can’t be the be-all or end-all to my self-worth. And when that kind of clicked into place I was like, oh shit, well, OK, now I can try other things without debilitating myself.”
“Other things” include the couple’s recent move to rural Suffolk, a whippet puppy and knitting. “I love to knit. I can’t do a cardie, but I can do a hat. Are they good hats? Who knows?” A project will have to be special now to pique her interest: she’d love to try comedy, but definitely not a musical (“I am so tone deaf. I was dying inside,” she says of a singing scene in The Time Traveler’s Wife). “I’ve been able to work for the last 12 years or so, that has quietened down the negative voice that I’m never going to work again. Oh God, this is going to sound ridiculous,” she says, embarrassed. “But it’s more, I hope that I can work with a certain standard of writers and directors.” It doesn’t sound ridiculous at all.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is available on Sky Atlantic and the streaming service Now
Styling by JoJones; hair by Halley Brisker using Color WOW; makeup by Justine Jenkins using Seeds of Colour; nails by Michelle Class using Sally Hanson; fashion assistant Roz Donoghue; digital tech Andy Mayfield; photographer’s assistant Alfie Bungay