‘Scaring people is wonderful’
Pamela Rabe, the woman behind “The Freak”, speaks out
The make-up room on the set of Wentworth, has a row of headshots of all the cast. At some point during shooting the latest season, the cast started replacing the photos of themselves with photos of themselves as young children. Pamela Rabe, who plays Joan “The Freak” Ferguson, stuck up a photo of herself as a four-year-old. “I’m gazing at the camera with a very Joan Ferguson expression with a lollipop in my mouth,” Pamela, 61, tells TV WEEK with a laugh. “I’ve just realised that look has obviously been in my arsenal for a very long time!”
That expression has terrified and enthralled Wentworth fans ever since Joan arrived as the prison’s new governor in the show’s second season. She’s quite possibly the scariest woman on TV, something Pamela thinks is “wonderful”.
“You try to tell stories that people can be engaged with and entertained by, but also to feel something,” she says. “So if people feel scared, that’s as good as anything.”
There are times when Pamela has witnessed the fear on people’s faces when they’ve seen her standing in front of them.
“Just occasionally you get a little squeal, a little hand clasped over the mouth,” she says.
Growing up in Canada, Pamela was still very young when she realised that baddies were the most fun to play on stage or screen.
“I played Goldilocks in kindergarten and that didn’t go well,” she remembers. “In second grade, I was handed the Queen in Alice In Wonderland, and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s no turning back from this.”‘
As an up-and-coming actress, Pamela met and fell in love with Roger Hodgman, an Australian 15 years her senior who was running the Vancouver Playhouse. When Roger got a job back in Australia, Pamela didn’t hesitate to move with him.
“It was 1983 and the second-wave golden age of Australian cinema was really peaking, Men At Work was top of the charts and the Commonwealth Games had just happened in Brisbane,” she remembers. “Australia was flavour of the month around the globe.
“Also I was in love, ready for a move and it seemed like an exciting adventure.”
It wasn’t long before Pamela made a name for herself as an actress in Australia. She starred in some “golden age” cinema herself, including the 1994 movie Sirens with Sam Neill, Hugh Grant and Elle Macpherson.
“That was magic, truly magic,” she says. “I was very young, quite scared and excited.”
With Roger directing plays and TV shows, the two sometimes got to work together, including in the 2003 series CrashBurn.
“I’worked with him quite a lot when I was first starting out in live performance on stage,” Pamela says. “I love working with him.”
It was in 2014 that Pamela took on Joan Ferguson, a role originally played by her “dear friend” Maggie Kirkpatrick in Prisoner in the 1980s.
“That’s handing you gloves on a plate, really,” she says. “There’s a starting point.”
Pamela explains that she’s found playing a psychopath “disturbingly easy”.
“You get a chance to indulge in actions and parts of a human character you’re not allowed to indulge in in real life,” she says. “There’s a lot of fun in that. I think the real challenge for me is trying to keep it grounded with at least one foot in truth.”
Starring in Wentworth has brought Pamela a new level of recognition, not to mention a TV WEEK Logie Award in 2018. But the recognition isn’t something she thinks about a lot.
“I’ve been going about my business in Melbourne for most of my life, and picking my nose in public, as you do, and it’s only occasionally that I suddenly realise that there’s a change in people’s gaze,” she says with a laugh. “But generally speaking, people are fabulous. I love how much fans of the show are invested in it.”
When Joan was buried alive in season five of Wentworth, Pamela assumed her character had been killed off.
“I thought she’d gone out with such a bang that that was the end of her and it was time to move on to other extraordinary characters in the story,” she says.
“It’s my favourite work family, and it’s such a joy to work on,” Pamela enthuses. “When I got the phone call, hearing they wanted to resurrect Joan Ferguson, I was thrilled.”
Adding to her joy, husband Roger has directed some of the episodes she’s recently shot.
“We got a chance to work together again,” the actress says. “It was fabulous.”
Outside of work, Pamela is happy just spending time with Roger, either at their home in Tasmania or in Melbourne.
“We go for long walks around Melbourne city — we do it now in our masks — and talk and talk.”
Once Wentworth is finished, Pamela has plenty of ideas as to what she’d like to do next, including producing her own TV shows. She’s keen to take on something a bit lighter, although she knows people won’t quickly forget a role like Joan.
“It sometimes can take a bit to shake that off and remind people that you can do other things,” she explains.
But for now, Pamela just wants fans to enjoy the twists and turns that lie ahead for her character in the prison drama.
“Oh, the places you’ll go,” she teases. “It’s great.”
Story: Helen Vnuk
Source: TV Week
Thanks to my beautiful buddy Jade for sending me photos of this article and for getting me the mag <3
TV Week September 2020
Photos by TV Week, Foxtel and Jade Smith