Honeymoon marks an auspicious debut for filmmaker Leigh Janiak. It contains all the elements of classic horror story: deeply-in-love newlyweds, summer heat, and a quaint, isolated lakeside homestead. Things rapidly turns sour when Bea (Rose Leslie) goes missing for a night—her husband Paul (Harry Treadaway) discovers her naked and alone in the woods with mysterious gashes on her legs and no memory of the night’s events. Paul assumes his wife has entered an affair, but when signs begin to point to an otherworldly invasion, it’s revealed the cause is far less mundane.
In one chilling scene, Leslie’s character Bea, slowly losing her mind to a kind of alien possession, attempts to hide her husband Paul from the incipient extraterrestrial menace—beneath the surface of the lake. Leslie is no stranger to portraying madness: A veteran of the Globe Theater in London, the 27-year-old actress once performed as a young woman hospitalized in Bedlam in 17th-century England. Honeymoon has been aptly compared to gothic horror in its vivid portrayal of a relationship that costs each individual his or her sanity. The surreal element becomes a vehicle by which director Janiak explores the pathologies in Bea and Paul’s claustrophobic and obsessive relationship.
A native Scotswoman, Leslie played a memorable role as Jon Snow’s oft-quoted Wildling lover Ygritte on HBO’s Game of Thrones. There, she traded her native accent for Northern English and, in Honeymoon, substitutes it again to play an American. Between takes, she and fellow Brit Treadaway returned to their usual voices. “In the later stages of the shoot, it was getting very dark and rather harrowing,” she says. “I needed to escape from that mindset and escape from Bea and just have a cup of tea.”
But while her time on Game of Thrones has wrapped and she’s moved on to further starring film roles (she’ll remain on this side of the pond for now, working in Pittsburgh on The Last Witchhunter through the end of the year), Leslie remains an avid fan of the series. She assures Interview she’s staunchly “Team Daenerys.”
KATHERINE CUSUMANO: Honeymoon has billed as a bodysnatchers-slash-horror genre movie—it premiered at South by Southwest’s Midnighters section. But it also seems to be more about the dissolution of this seemingly very solid relationship. So what, in your words, is it really about?
ROSE LESLIE: Well. I feel that you’re absolutely right, in the sense that it is more directed towards the dissolve of this relationship, seeing the cracks appear in what is, at the beginning, a very strong one. Only at the end do we really approach the horror genre with there being blood and gore. But throughout it is, I hope, a kind of psychological thriller whereby you are watching it and seeing all these mixed messages between these two. These two characters absolutely, 100 percent love each other. They are so enamored with each other that you almost don’t see from the beginning how it could crumble and crack.
CUSUMANO: At the end, when you are taking Paul to hide him, very clearly there still is that love there but it’s much more ambiguous. You say, “I’m going to hide you underwater,” and no, that doesn’t work, but it’s so rational at the same time.
LESLIE: The love does creep over to a maternal side whereby she can’t ever have the man she loves becoming what she is becoming because it is too frightening and it’s too daunting. And so there she is, protecting him, and that’s how I read it because there is no loss of love there. She is still absolutely adamant that nothing bad is going to happen to her husband.
CUSUMANO: What are the differences between getting into a character who has already been written very much in-depth like Game of Thrones‘s Ygritte versus somebody who is the creation of dialogue the way it is in a film script like Bea?
LESLIE: The pressure is heightened with Game of Thrones having been a successful and popular book series, and with HBO then fueling that fire and it becoming the global phenomenon that it is now. I think that if you think too much about just how loved all the characters in the books are, you almost do yourself a disservice because it becomes too daunting. So there’s a lovely freedom of will when you approach a character that no one has really come across before, because it is your own interpretation. No one can say right or wrong. And it’s development with your co-star. It’s also development with the director, and so there is slightly more freedom and more ability to play with Bea. But also in the same sense, everything that Ygritte ever was was right there in the script for me to learn about and for me to play. So it is very much a double-edged sword.
CUSUMANO: This was also your first starring role in a big feature. How was that different from working in TV?
LESLIE: I had worked in TV prior to working on Game of Thrones—Game of Thrones is far more cinematic than any other television show that I had done before, and so I feel that the worlds of TV and film are most definitely merging as one. The production value and the amount of money backing these television productions now are within the realms of big-budget movies. Working on Honeymoon, an independent movie, was almost like working on TV with the space and everything was stripped down—costume and hair and makeup. There was very little to hide behind and you absolutely had to create the character from within. With Honeymoon, it was so intimate and we literally shot it in something like 20, 24 days. Everything was very rapid and very fast and so all of us submerged into the deep end and only really came up for air once we had wrapped.
CUSUMANO: They were both also shot in wilderness locations, right? You were in the woods of North Carolina for Honeymoon. What were some of the challenges of being out in the woods?
LESLIE: Out in the sticks! Oh gosh. Well, I suppose the whole isolation. Those weren’t necessarily challenges in the sense that I felt that it fed far more into the characters than I could have hoped, because once I finally saw the cottage—and this was a genuine cottage in the sense that it wasn’t built for the production—there was a family that have and do live in that house and it felt very real. It felt incredibly lived-in. Things weren’t absolutely immaculate. This did feel like and was an old cottage that had very fond memories and obviously kind of loved and cared for and so that certainly helped fuel the whole world of Bea and Paul.
CUSUMANO: It must put a lot more pressure on the performance, as well, given such a stripped-down location.
LESLIE: It was very raw, and actually Harry and I felt that it felt very much like a play. Very much like a theater piece because it was a two-hander. We were leaning on each other a lot because it was just the two of us sharing the screen and there was a wonderful amount of trust there and a wonderful amount of honesty and it was a real collaboration and teamwork going on with Leigh, myself, and Harry, and then also obviously the crew as well. So it was a close-knit family unit.
CUSUMANO: Have you done any theater work?
LESLIE: I have. I was lucky enough to get into drama school in London back in 2005 and I was there for three years, and in those three years we did a lot of theater. A lot of classical training. And then afterwards, I had toured the country—the U.K.— a couple of times with a theater company, and then I was fortunate enough to work at the Globe back in the summer in 2010.
CUSUMANO: What is your earliest memory of being on stage?
LESLIE: It had to be when I was at school, and it was in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, doing a Shakespearean monologue out to the audience and then completely drying because I was so terrified. I forgot my words and just thinking then and there that I can’t ever feel like this again because it’s the most horrific feeling. You feel like the ground has just sunk beneath your feet and you’re like, “Oh, my God, what is my next line?” So it’s a horrible feeling. I think fear is probably my earliest memory.
CUSUMANO: Do you still get stage fright?
LESLIE: I do. In a very corny way, I hope that I never lose it, because it pushes me on and in the time, it’s never fun to be scared but I think that it is important and it’s healthy to always push yourself.
CUSUMANO: Do you have any rituals for overcoming it?
LESLIE: [pauses] I think booze is a good ritual. I think knocking back a shot of whiskey does calm the nerves and helps a lot. [laughs]
HONEYMOON COMES OUT TOMORROW, SEPTEMBER 12, IN SELECT THEATERS AND ON VOD AND iTUNES.