Q&A: Pamela Rabe, actor & director, 62
Many Australians know you as a murderous psychopath after your long-running role in prison drama Wentworth. How do they react when you meet?
Sometimes they’re a little excited and a little scared, but maybe that’s just because they’re meeting someone who’s been in the lounge room. I’m astonished by how many know me by my name, say hello…
How did you get that plum role as Joan “The Freak” Ferguson in 2013?
I enjoy playing baddies, and probably because of my physical stature [183cm] I’ve been playing them all through my career, including playing the wicked witch in the musical The Wizard of Oz. When the phone call came for Wentworth and they said would you be interested in playing Joan Ferguson, I just squealed with delight.
New projects: Pamela Rabe. Picture: Simon Taylor / Foxtel
Ten more episodes, then it’s curtains for the show. How much will it be missed?
This was a real experiment to see if you could reimagine such an iconic TV project as Prisoner (1979-86) and it worked so well… but there are so many stories still to be told. I’d like to see another vehicle that would give our great performers, particularly our great actresses, another opportunity that isn’t necessarily set inside prison walls.
Your work in Australian theatre is extensive. Is that your passion?
My first love was always screen but my training [in Vancouver] was based on live performance so I couldn’t help but come out with a slight bias towards stage. But I love the mix and honestly, to be an artist who is employed in this country you have to be able to do as many things as you can.
After arriving from Canada in 1983 with your Australian husband (director Roger Hodgman), did you have to work on your accent?
It’s been a slow process of assimilation. I’ve probably always sounded a little bit poncey, and in the first few months I started to get very self-conscious about it. So I got a job pulling beers in a pub. I knew if I was going to be employed I would have to evolve, not superimpose another voice.
You’ve been in Melbourne rehearsing a rather Gothic theatre production. What makes Monsters right for 2021?
I tried to avoid monstrous roles while Wentworth was happening but this one is different – a kind of epic poem with dance that sends us into the netherworld of our deepest fears. I have huge admiration for what they’re doing at Malthouse Theatre and their insistence that whatever they program now has to speak to the experience we are having as a society. We need it all – the light theatre and the dark.
When you’re home in Tasmania, does it feel like life as usual?
Life is pretty glorious down there. But I’ve been splitting my time between Tasmania and the mainland, where all my work is… so I’ve done five quarantines now. Whenever I’m feeling a little bit trapped, I think: well, every one of those quarantines represents a job I was able to go away and do.
What’s next for you?
I have a number of projects on the boil – a TV series, stage projects for 2023… one of the silver linings of this time is learning to be light on your feet. Things happen unexpectedly and they happen quickly, and so it’s about being both prepared and having a gentle grasp on your dreams.
Wentworth: The Final Sentence premieres on Tuesday, August 24 at 8.30pm on Foxtel.
By Cathy Osmond