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Drawing Deep

From Yukon to Melbourne, it’s been a roller-coaster ride for AFI Best Actress Pamela Rabe

Pamela Rabe couldn’t be in Melbourne to claim her Best Actress gong at the Australian Film Institute Awards on Nov. 14. And despite her prerecorded acceptance speech, the star of The Well didn’t even know the award was hers. At the time, the Canadian-born performer was 900km away, treading the boards as Noel Coward’s capricious Amanda in a sparkling production of Private Lives, and discovered she’d won the AFI “about 30 seconds” before taking her bow at the end of the play at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Theatre.

“I knew for sure by the look on [actress] Kirrily White’s face when she came out to join us for the curtain call,” Rabe says merrily. “Just this beaming big red smile!” But it wasn’t until STC director Wayne Harrison stepped onstage to make a congratulatory speech that the news was official. “I’d also found out that day that I’d just won the Best Actress award at the Stockholm Film Festival,” an ecstatic Rabe continues, “so I was already a little bit happy.”

Pamela Rabe | Photo by Philip Le Masurier (1997)

No wonder. But even before the awards, 38-year-old Rabe’s haunting star turn as The Well‘s Hester and her stunning supporting performance in 1996’s Cosi had put her on a cinematic roll. A striking, softly spoken, supremely urbane woman with long, gleaming dark hair and a thoughtfully edgy manner, she bears not the slightest physical resemblance to the spinsterish Hester, into whose fraught soul she so compellingly delved in the dark, suspenseful drama.

“Hester inhabited me for the whole six weeks of that shoot,” Rabe recalls. She and co-star Miranda Otto “were living that film for 16 hours a day”. Hester’s strong physical characteristics helped, she adds. “The limp, the cane, the long silhouette and the plait immediately had an impact on me.”

“Pamela gave a lot of herself, and that spilled into the role,” says director Samantha Lang. “As well as being a technically very well trained and very talented actor, I think that who she is as a person comes through in that film.”

Right now Rabe is in a far less demanding place; coiled in casual pants and a soft, dark sweater on the leather lounge of the spare, elegant eastern suburbs waterfront apartment she is renting through to mid-January, when Private Lives finishes its Sydney run. The actress is more usually a Melbourne girl. She and her husband, Melbourne Theatre Company director Roger Hodgman, 53, moved there in 1983 when he was appointed head of acting at the Victorian College of the Arts, and — barring two years when Rabe based herself in Sydney — they’ve stayed happily put since. “I love living in Australia,” she says firmly, “and being an Australian.”

That said, there’s a price to pay for leaving home. Rabe is the youngest girl in a close family of five boys and three girls whom she misses “a great deal, especially as the years pass by”. Then again, she is used to being flexible. Her father, William Koropatnick, was the public works director for a vast territory that took in British Columbia and the Yukon. “He was responsible for paving Canada, so we travelled around.” (Rabe uses her mother Reta’s maiden name.)

The family eventually settled in Vancouver, where Rabe went to school. Her love of acting, she says, “probably goes back to being in the Yukon Territory in the ’60s where there was no television and no movie theatre. Occasionally they used to run a couple of films on a rickety old home projector in the church basement on Sunday nights. It became truly an event: trudging out in sub-zero weather to go watch a movie.”

Pamela Rabe & Roger Hodgman | Photo by Patrick RivierePamela “just wafted” into drama classes at high school, then studied at the Vancouver Playhouse Acting School. It was there she met and fell in love with Hodgman, an Australian who was running the attached theatre company. When they came to Australia in 1983 (marrying the following year), Rabe was 23 and “straight out of school. It was a time where everything was about potential and opportunity.”

Luckily, opportunity has knocked repeatedly in both Melbourne and Sydney, in what Rabe modestly describes as “a steady climb” through such weighty stage roles as Much Ado About Nothing‘s Beatrice, The Three Sisters‘ Olga and Mice B. Toklas in Gertrude Stein and a Companion. Her film roster is bulking up as well with Lust and Revenge, Vacant Possession, Sirens, Paradise Road and, of course, Cosi and The Well.

It hasn’t been easy. From 1989—’91, Rabe made Sydney her base, leaving Hodgman in Melbourne. “I just thought it was politic to get out of town, that’s all,” she says briskly. “When your husband is running the company which is the major employer for actors in Melbourne, it just seemed like a good idea.” In Sydney, she says, she was plagued with questions: ” ‘Will anybody else hire me? Am I getting this work because of what I can do? Or is it just to do with who I’m married to?’ ” It was a tough decision: Rabe’s relationship with Hodgman is clearly her rock. But when people did hire her, “It was a great relief. I don’t think I would have got the subsequent work I have if I hadn’t done it. We’re quite insular from state to state.”

The STC’s Harrison says Rabe has a point: “I don’t think she’s being oversensitive in her self-consciousness about who she’s married to and his position in the industry, because the talent pool in Australia is so small and there’s a lot of bitchiness. Initially when Pam relocated here, she was very aware of what people might think and say about this outsider. But ultimately, I don’t give a stuff about who she’s married to or whatever. I just know she is one of the top actresses in the country. She is not winning AFI awards because she is married to a certain person. She’s winning them because the performance is exceptional and she is an exceptional talent.”

Just where she will be, workwise, when Private Lives ends, Rabe isn’t certain or overly concerned. “There’s a couple of stage things I’ve been offered but I’m still thinking on them,” she says serenely. Along with the play, the ride is most definitely the thing. “I just love the roller-coaster my career has been so far,” she exults, “operating on what comes up around the corner. I just hope that keeps happening.” ■

by Andiee Paviour

Source: Who Magazine December 1997 | Thanks to Teresa from PRRRH for sending me her scans of the article

Photos by: Philip Le Masurier, Lisa Iley, Patrick Riviere, Robert McFarlane, Jeff Busby | Scans by: Teresa Janzek

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