As one of the most celebrated actors to be a part of Wentworth Prison, Pamela Rabe has garnered an incredible fanbase since starring on the show, despite playing villainous Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson.
We got the opportunity to once again catch up with Pamela to find out all about filming some hugely emotional scenes in the fourth season of the show, how things work behind the scenes with her co-stars and much more…
(A huge thank you to fans who sent in questions for this interview! We love collaborating with you. If you’d like your Twitter handle included with your question, you know where to find me…)
In season 4 we see Joan go from Governor to prisoner – how did you find that transition?
Pretty challenging actually, is the short answer to that. I love a challenge, so it was really exciting as well. I think having played a character from the last couple of seasons who, for the most part felt pretty sure of who she was, as long as she had the bun and the uniform on, when that bit of armour disappears it suddenly becomes a much more tricky thing to negotiate. I was very intrigued with all the twists and turns that the writers threw into my past and did my best to embrace them, and work out how Joan would work her way through those things.
There are some really emotional scenes this season such as the sexual assault on Joan in the showers – have any of them been particularly difficult for you to film?
They’re all challenging, but they’re acting challenges. I’m old enough and experienced enough now to know how to protect myself, and I actually quite enjoy plumbing those deep recesses and corners of one’s self, one’s instrument in order to tell the story as best as I possibly can. I really relish that. I think one of the delights of being an actor and being presented with good, challenging work, is how best, how much you can reach into yourself and provide surprises for an audience, and even actually surprises for the people you’re working with, that are true to the essence of the piece, but are tapping into something that feels true and feels real, and I really relish that.
Having said that, there was some pretty dark places and difficults situations they were putting Joan in. They were tricky, interesting to play, but often, if you’re specifically talking about that bashing in the shower by Juicy Lucy and her group, in a way I feel that was maybe harder for the actresses who were playing the perpetrators in that. I tend to protect myself the same way Joan would protect herself, which is to exit my body, go to another place in your mind, whereas they were being called upon to do things that were really quite violent and brutal, terrible, and I think that takes a toll.
A lot has to be said for the editors and crew as well who deal with putting the scene together, because it’s always done so well…
Yeah, I remember the editors coming out of the suite actually on several days doing the next block ashen-faced, saying ‘I’ve just had to come out and have a breather and get a bit of air’. They’re the ones who are actually living with it for hours on end trying to cut the material together in a dynamic and sensitive way.
Joan and Bea Smith are often paralleled despite being such different characters – what does that suggest to you about their relationship?
I think I’ve always felt and said in the past that Joan Ferguson sees Bea Smith as a viable opponent and Joan likes a good fight. So, she’s much quicker to dismiss what she considers weakness in people and, unexpected weakness disappoints her, she feels she must punish it, but I think that there’s a grudging respect for what Bea Smith has done to herself to survive and, I think she considers her… That fencing metaphor that was set up really early on in season two has carried through. She likes someone who she can thrust and parry with.
What do you think are Joan’s ultimate motivations? Is she even aware of them?
Well, there’ll be the motivations that she is aware of, which I think she believes very much in excellence, success, what she would think is the greater good and that the ends of what she believes to be the greater good justify any means, as clearly demonstrated by her behaviour! There are obviously deeper, unconscious motivations that drive her that are constantly evolving depending on what the writers throw at me! (laughs)
What effect on Joan’s emotions do you think being in prison has had?
That’s a really interesting question actually and it’s one I’ve thought about a lot. I found it very challenging filming season 4, because as I alluded to when we first started chatting, with her bun and her uniform, Joan knew who she was and suddenly to lose those things, it becomes much fuzzier and, I was often asking questions of the writers and the directors, ‘Is she still there?’ She was having to employ all her skills in her toolkit, chameleon-like to survive. Whoever she was engaging with, she had to become who Joan felt they wanted her to be, and at the same time presenting as a non-threat to anyone in order to achieve her goals. It was so un-Joan-like for the Joan that we’d encountered in seasons 2 and 3, that occasionally I would feel like, ‘Maybe she’s slipping away?’ So it was a question I was asking myself all the time and, luckily, with a lot of help, occasionally you can reconnect with the glimmer in her eye! (laughs) Or something that would keep us connected to know that Joan, God knows she may lose everything but she always has a plan.
You work closely with Tammy McIntosh who plays Kaz this season – what is she like to work with?
Absolutely fabulous. I adore Tammy, she’s just a fireball. She’s so utterly committed and volatile, unpredictable and very, very present when she’s working, and that was such a wonderful kind of foil against Joan’s natural icy calm, that to try to become a person that Tammy’s Kaz Proctor would trust and engage with, was really, really a lot of fun. A real challenge, but a lot of fun!
What do you think Joan was trying to prove with her move from isolation to general population?
I think it was pretty clear from the events, that if Joan Ferguson’s gonna find herself under the same roof as all the people that she both employed as well as cared for in terms of prisoners for the past two seasons, it was gonna be dangerous. In terms of credibility I think it was a real gamble the writers were taking, but I think they very skillfully trod that path, saying it was the only female prison in the state and while she was on remand and waiting trial, it was the obvious place to put her, as long as she was in isolation and kept apart from all the other prisoners. It becomes clear at the end of the second episode that all that has to be rejigged when Joan realises she loses her one key witness, and the only way she’s gonna be able to get what she needs done, done, is to get her to general population. Once that becomes her main priority she will do whatever it takes to get there.
But she’s not stupid, she would know that that was always a huge risk to take, that she might end up dead, at the very least she’d have to cop something. But if she’s skillful and clever she will manage to slalom down that minefield! I’m mixing my metaphors there but you know, it is literally a minefield, and if she can tiptoe her way through that, there’s gold at the other end.
When Joan moves into gen-pop we see Vera give her a tissue when she’s spat on – do you think some part of Vera still has empathy for Joan?
Well, I think it was a very close relationship, I suspect it was one of the closest relationships, other than Jianna, that Joan Ferguson has ever had, or perhaps that was her parents or her father in particular, but even of those I suspect that her relationship with her father was a very complex, dysfunctional one, the relationship with Jianna was somewhat, I’d suspect, if not one-sided, Joan’s version of it might not be the same when shared by Jianna, whereas I think the relationship with Vera, they’d achieved a level of trust before everything went wrong and I think on some level, Joan feels the loss there. It’s partly I think what fuels her anger, that betrayal, that loss. Clearly Vera too on some level put her faith, her trust, transferred it I suppose from her mother to Joan and so, there’s still rumblings of that, that sit underneath.
That was an important relationship in both those women’s lives. I adore working with Kate Atkinson, that moment, the passing of the handkerchief is something that Kate and I discovered in the filming of it. It was something that wasn’t in the script, we just discussed that. So the little subconscious, as you say, reachings out, little things that they do, that they say, they’re constantly having to fight but there is some bond there that’s complicated.
Do you miss Joan’s black leather gloves?
They’ll be tucked away somewhere safe. You believe me! Don’t you worry about that!
You’ve directed theatre in the past, would you consider directing an episode of Wentworth?
I haven’t considered that, no, but I’ve always been very interested in all sides of any projects that I’m involved in, so I do watch in awe of all the skill that goes into bringing a show like this to life. Every aspect of it, I just love watching them do their job, I love watching the sound recorders, I love going in and watching the editors in the suite and all that kind of stuff. Part of that’s just general curiosity and maybe some day it’ll be useful.
Congratulations on your recent AACTA Award – how did it feel to win that for this show?
Fabulous. Thanks Daniel. I think it’s extraordinary actually that in a very short period of time this show has garnered so many accolades and really caught the attention of television viewing audiences. As I said at the time, these awards could go to any of the members of the cast and, it does! There’s this kind of revolving door that keeps moving around the cast, nominations and awards and stuff, and it’s testament to the extraordinary work that’s been done, the quality of the work that’s been done by the actresses and actors in this series, and also by the producers and writers, and giving us roles where people can show off. What we’re hired to do is tell stories, if they give us good stories to tell, we’ll dive in and give it our all. It’s great when people sit up and take notice.
You met fans in the UK for the first time earlier this month – how was that experience?
Fabulous, it was great. Really, really wonderful. A couple of events both in England and Scotland. Because I’m somebody who works on stage a lot, we meet our audience eight times a week, but when you’re working on screen, you rarely meet your audience, and to get up close and personal with the fans of the show – and they’re such a committed, engaged and sometimes a little bit spooky group of people! (laughs) – that it’s such a thrill to have them talk about the show, the stuff that excites them, that frustrates them, that scares them and moves them. I found it really moving actually, really wonderful.
Finally what’s coming up next for you?
I’ve got a number of projects lined up both on screen and on stage. A very, very busy year and a half ahead actually. I feel very blessed.
Wentworth Prison continues in the UK on its new home on 5STAR, Tuesdays at 10pm.