WANTED: One prison governor who can disarm electrocution devices, efficiently kill an inmate and stage it as a suicide, steal a dying woman’s pain meds, and still peel off her black leather gloves with a satisfied snap at the end of the day.
Such is life for new Governor Joan Ferguson on Foxtel’s dark Prisoner remake, Wentworth. The manipulative prison boss finally showed her sociopathic depths in a shocking episode last week — pausing only to pat her hair bun into place after dispatching inmate Simmo (Ally Fowler), who was inadvertently about to ruin her schemes.
“She’s single-minded,” Pamela Rabe says of the puppet-master she plays with delicious cunning.
“Extraordinarily strong-willed, highly principled, very demanding, somebody who believes the ends justify the means — everyone is expendable.
“I think she’s utterly convinced she does things for the right reason, but she absolutely demands allegiance . . . and also enjoys extracting facts from people.
“As the scripts come in I’m like, ‘Oh my lord!’,” she says with a hearty cackle.
Rabe, 55, is sitting in a rickety chair at a rustic Northbridge cafe, sipping tea. Her long hair is swinging loose (not a bun in sight), her height is imposing, her movements fluid and feline. Rabe is the first to admit she’s hard to miss.
“When you’re built the way I am and look the way I do you tend to get offered a lot of strong female roles and a lot of those roles are occasionally quite nasty,” she says.
“And they don’t come much stronger or nastier than this. So when the phone call came I was like, ‘Oh! That’s just great’.”
Ferguson is based on Prisoner’s predatory guard dubbed “The Freak”, played by Rabe’s friend Maggie Kirkpatrick.
Rabe says her version of the character, whose “work is her life”, hides many secrets behind her controlled mask.
“I suspect underneath water level, those legs are going rather fast,” she grins. “I think there’s room for unexpected things that can be revealed.”
So do these hidden depths include Ferguson being gay, as the original was?
“I’m not yet sure how completely in touch with all of that she is,” Rabe says after a pause.
“Maybe she is (gay) or she’s just pretending something else. She’s such a player. She gets a huge amount of sexual pleasure out of the games she plays.”
Rabe says she was offered the role the day Julia Gillard was ousted as prime minister which made her think about aspects of women in power.
“The whole notion of what it is to be a woman in a position of leadership and in a position of power and have a lot of people in her care is really interesting to me,” she says.
Of course, the power dynamic in prison is a little different to Parliament.
“Really one’s only power in that environment, if you’re an inmate, is the chaos you can create,” Rabe says.
“So chaos and control are in a constant scuffle, they’re in a headlock.”
Joining Ferguson in that scuffle for control is the cluelessly loyal Deputy Governor Vera Bennett, played by West Australian actress Kate Atkinson.
“She’s a fine actress,” Rabe enthuses.
“We keep talking about the spin-off series where Ferguson and Vera end up on the lam, doing a Thelma and Louise somewhere,” she laughs. “They make a formidable team.”
Rabe grew up in Canada as the second eldest in a family of eight siblings, who all played musical instruments.
“I was a French horn player,” she says. “I loved it and then I went on to play junior symphony throughout my childhood and teen years. I was never that good (to pursue it), but I loved the nature of ensemble . . . Part of the joy of Wentworth is that it is an ensemble piece. It’s a great work-family.”
Theatrically trained Rabe migrated to Australia in 1983 after marrying respected Australian theatre director Roger Hodgman. Her prolific CV contains stints with the Melbourne and Sydney Theatre Companies (including a star turn as Richard III) and TV and film roles, earning an AFI Award for The Well (1997). She has also turned her hand to directing plays.
But arguably no role will garner her quite so much attention as that of Ferguson, and ardent fans will undoubtedly spot the hard-to-miss actress even when she travels overseas.
“Wentworth’s (on) free-to-air in the UK. I do hope I don’t swan down the street looking too much like Joan Ferguson, but I suspect I do,” she smirks.
“I’ll just have to keep the bun at bay.”
Source: perthnow.com.au | 28 June 2014