TORONTO - She had no previous experience wielding weapons or marching through knee-deep snow across frigid glaciers, but 26-year-old Scottish actress Rose Leslie said it felt pretty natural stepping into the role of Ygritte on "Game of Thrones."
The cut-throat competition she's used to as an actress doesn't compare to the conniving back-stabbing that's ever-present in George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy books, which the show is based on, but Leslie nevertheless felt a kinship with her tough-as-nails character.
"As a young actor kind of starting off in an industry that is so difficult and competitive you've got to be strong, there's got to be an element of ambition there and you've got to be strong and determined in your own way," says Leslie, who's played strong female characters before — she was the ambitious housemaid Gwen Dawson in the first season of "Downton Abbey," who was determined to rise above her station in life and become a secretary.
"What stuck with me with Ygritte was how phenomenally independent and fierce she is and she's a strong, determined young lady in control with every situation.
"So I felt (Ygritte). Of course, you step it up once you do become the character ... but it wasn't difficult stepping into that role, where she is so dominant and powerful and she knows what she wants."
Ygritte emerged as one of the most compelling new characters of the show's second season, introduced when she is captured by Jon Snow and other members of the Night's Watch.
She's unflinchingly ready for death, but when Jon Snow doesn't have the stomach to kill her, she plots how to turn the tables, bides her time, and eventually does go from captive to captor.
Leslie appreciated how multi-dimensional the character is and enjoyed how her Ygritte develops an unlikely relationship with Jon Snow.
"She has a flip side ... she doesn't take herself too seriously and she can be playful and bounce that off her ruthlessness," says Leslie.
"But dominantly she is a killer, she is brutal and has been brought up in these harsh surroundings and therefore is harsh and brutal herself."
Leslie was in Toronto to launch a travelling "Game of Thrones" exhibit of costumes and props from the show, which runs at the Design Exchange through Saturday.
A few morsels of information about her role in the show's upcoming third season, which premieres March 31 on HBO Canada, have leaked out. She's briefly seen in an official trailer sporting a bow and arrow and another quick cut offers a blink-and-you'll-miss-it peek at a sex scene.
Leslie was mostly tight-lipped about the new episodes but did hint that fans can expect even more of the epic action, duplicity and brutality seen in the series thus far.
"I feel it's going to be the most exciting season, I really do. With this season there are so many events that take place and we see the show's beloved characters get tested and pushed to the extreme and I think viewers are going to be pleasantly surprised but ultimately are going to be shocked as well," she says.
"There's more danger and I think the momentum is upped."