In the third of our four Wentworth Prison interviews, Pamela Rabe talks all things freaky, her villainous character Joan Ferguson and more in a hilariously honest and refreshing interview. Read on to find out what she had to say.
First off, going back really to when you first joined the show, what drew you to Wentworth and the role of Joan Ferguson?
Oo, that’s a tricky one. I suppose, oh goodness. Many, many things. But the first part of it, I would say, I’ve often, because of the way I look really I suppose, and perhaps the way I act, I’ve often been given the opportunity to play some great, very strong women, and often wicked women. Although I wasn’t a huge watcher of the original Prisoner Cell Block H series, I was very aware of it and of its cultural impact. And also Maggie Kirkpatrick who originated the role of The Freak, Joan Ferguson, is a good mate of mine, and we’ve worked together onstage a number of times, so I was very aware of Maggie’s creation, more as a cultural icon than anything but also the impact that it’s had, and I’ve had lots of conversations around that. So I was very aware of what the role was, but not necessarily in its detail or complexity, but just kind of, as an archetype.
Then, fast forward now to a couple of years ago when the first series of Wentworth, this 21st century reimagining of the story was in production, again I had several colleagues and friends who were involved in it, and the buzz even before it went to air was that it was a really good series, it was great. People were having a great time working on it, great writers, great producers, and that it was a piece of quality television that people were getting quite excited about. So the buzz was quite hot.
And then, before I’d seen anything, I then got a phone call saying would I be interested – they were looking to introduce the character of Joan Ferguson into the second series, and would I be interested. By that point, I was primed. I have gone on record saying I just shrieked with laughter, I thought it was some sort of weird, morphic kind of pre-destiny or something that led to this place! Maggie played my mother in a play called The Beauty Queen of Leenane, so there was this odd kind of symmetry about it all that just felt right. I was very lucky. It all kind of fell into place quite quickly, it happened to work around my other theatre commitments. The producers were really, incredibly generous in helping me work out the schedules, and we haven’t looked back! It was great.
Was there a pressure stepping into a show based on Prisoner, which was so iconic?
Yeah I think so. Not so much as I’d anticipated in a way because it was so clear that this series, although there were elements of it that honour or pay homage to that original series, it’s very much a new series in its own right. Often the little elements that hark back beyond the fact that it is a prison called Wentworth and a few characters share names that have been established in the original series, a lot of it is a completely new world and new stories.
Having said that it became quickly clear that Maggie Kirkpatrick’s creation of The Freak was one of the, if not the most iconic creation of that original series from the 70s and 80s and that any character who bore that name carried a little bit more baggage than perhaps some of the other characters who shared names with the original series.
And so, there was a little bit of that. We originally I remember we were talking about the look of the character and we experimented a little bit in makeup tests and hair tests and costume tests about how much we could stray, and then eventually, very quickly we realised we knew things like black gloves would appear – that there were gonna be certain, not constrictions but certain parameters initially that we would have to obey, and those really, certainly haven’t got in the way, but I realised that there was a certain responsibility there with that. But it wasn’t a burden, it certainly wasn’t an unhappy burden. If anything it was a delight to feel that Maggie had done a lot of work for me before I even had to step in front of a camera, it was great! (laughs) Learning from a master, or a mistress I should say!
Season two saw Ferguson very much in charge, there were some power struggles with Franky, but now with new ‘Top Dog’ Bea Smith, what should viewers expect from that storyline?
The unexpected, I think. Yes, I mean it really is, the battle is on. And I think, having said that I do think that Joan Ferguson appreciates a worthy opponent, she’s not one to shy away from a battle I would have thought season two would have demonstrated, and so she’s willing and ready to lock horns with anybody who gets in her way.
We also found out a little about Ferguson’s past last season, will that continue to develop?
I think there’ll be some insights, yes. Absolutely. I’m full of admiration for the way the writers manage to keep, it’s like a lot of spinning plates on tops of poles, it’s a delicate balance of many many character’s stories all spinning and dipping in them on certain episodes to concentrate or give a little bit more focus to one of the character’s stories without losing the thread and the concerns and issues for the other characters. Certainly during series three I think you’ll see that continue, episodes will have a greater or lesser focus on certain elements, but I think in some of them we’ll get a few more insights into what drives Joan.
Libby Tanner joins this season as Wentworth’s new psychologist and she butts heads with Ferguson, what was it like to film scenes with Libby?
She’s certainly, I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say she’s not a particularly welcome addition to Joan Ferguson’s staff. She’s a board appointment and that doesn’t set things off on the most friendly footing.
And Kate Atkinson is back as Vera, she’s so loyal to Ferguson but surely that will at some point be challenged or questioned?
Well I think by the end of the second series you’ll see that people are holding a fair number of secrets in each other’s pockets. Certainly the pact between Joan and her deputy is a very complicated but deep and intricate one. But I think it’s also a very close relationship, but Joan she’s very clever. She’s really clear that if she’s going to hold somebody close she wants to make sure that she has if not bought their allegiance, has engineered it in such a way to make it very, very difficult for those people that she holds close to escape.
Joan always seems to be one step ahead – does she have any weaknesses?
I think she would like to think she doesn’t, but I think anybody, as I say she likes a good fight, and she knows that she feels she tests her own metal by pitching herself into battle with worthy opponents. So whenever you do that, you risk failure and I think that’s how she tests herself, by pitching herself into battle. So inevitably, the challenge of exposing a vulnerability is part of what excites her, but also could be her undoing.
What is a typical day like filming Wentworth?
They’re long days, as always it is in television, and particularly in this where they work very, very fast. Getting in quite early, often 5am, 5.30am in the morning. That bun takes an awful long time to get pinned in! Often they’ll be quite long days, but having said that, one of the joys of ensemble television is that, with the exception of a few episodes where maybe there might be a strong concentration on one character, usually the load is spread across a lot of performers, and so you may have two or three days in a row which are very, very long, then you might have a day off or a day with a light load with only one scene or two scenes. It’s the crews that work so hard, that do the fourteen hour, fifteen hour days and all that stuff and the directors.
Another special story which I think is quite unusual is the fact that it’s set in a prison means our work space, everything’s in one hub. The producers, the writers, the art department, the editing suite, and the prison and the sets and everything are all in one facility. That’s quite unusual and it makes for a really great work family. It’s a really buzzy, collaborative, busy, thriving place and you know that if you’ve got a question, you just have to run up some stairs and somebody’s there to ask it. They’re not many kilometres across town. We’re all eating together, and working together, and thinking together, and dreaming together. It’s special.
I know you’re not on Twitter yourself so we’ve got some fan questions if that’s OK?
The first one is from @badkidvictoria and she asks, is there any part of Ferguson that you can associate with yourself?
(laughs) That’s a terrible question! I’m sure there’s many. And the point is, draw on elements always when you’re performing. I’m luckily not in the situation that Joan Ferguson is in, and I don’t necessarily have the kind of character or the circumstances of the way that her character has formed, I don’t necessarily share. But in the end, I’m having to respond honestly and with my imaginative capacity to things, with a series of given circumstances. What would I do? So of course, my DNA is all mingled up with hers! That’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it? (laughs) I do wash my hands a lot, I would say that, yes!
I was going through airport security the other day and struck up a conversation with somebody who recognised me from the show, because it’s on air here in Australia at the moment, and they kind of screamed initially, and then we started talking and laughing, and then at the end of the conversation the woman said, ‘It’s so funny seeing you smile, you never smile!’ I said, ‘Well actually I do smile a lot! Joan doesn’t necessarily, but I do!’, so that’s one thing I don’t share with Joan. I do love a laugh and I do smile a lot. So I imagine that’s an area that Joan could work on a little, I think.
You’ll like this one it’s from a user called @RabeIsQueen…
(laughs) I love this fanbase, I just think they’re fabulous.
They ask if you could play another character on the show who would it be?
We invest in the grace of this show so much, we work so hard when we’re making it, it’s so wonderful to know that there’s a diehard crew of fans out there who invest as much in the show as we do in a way. It’s just great.
Another character in the show that I’d wanna play? I have to say at the end of the show when we wrapped, at the end of this, we had a kind of… (laughs) I really am censoring myself thinking, ‘Should I say this or should I not?’ I’ll say it, what the f**k, I’ll say it!
We wrapped on the last day as Joan Ferguson and Vera and a couple of others, we had finished our scenes at midday and there was still another big scene with the women in the cafeteria and, just for fun, several of us playing officers got dressed up in teal, and I came along as a prisoner! (laughs) In teal! Who was not Joan Ferguson, but it was a character that just arose out of putting on the uniform, and we gave her a name, I can’t remember what it was, it was like Maureen or something. But we worked out that she was Joan Ferguson’s long lost evil twin, and I think THAT’S a character I would love to play! (laughs) Separated at birth! Joan didn’t realise that she had an identical twin named Maureen.
Angela Norquay would like to know what do you enjoy doing in your spare time and what kind of music do you listen to?
Me personally listen to? A lot of everything, I trained as a classical musician and I played the french horn for about eight years, so I do love classical music but I have a very broad taste in music. In fact I pride myself in being a good DJ in a dressing room. People probably don’t know what happens in dressing rooms a lot, but in stage but also in makeup rooms on film sets, often somebody will have some form of iPhone dock or whatever, and I have a very large music collection and I love being able to provide a playlist that suits the occasion, I like that a lot. That requires having a pretty broad taste in music, yeah.
I’m a big fan of female vocalists. There’s a wonderful musician in Australia called Megan Washington who I think’s sensational.
To see such a powerful female yet villainous role is a rare thing on television, is it exciting to continue to push those barriers and break the mould?
Absolutely. Yes, full stop, yes. I mean, you know, many many actors have gone on record to say how enjoyable it is to play a villain, but also anybody, there’s this professional fascination in working out when people behave badly, why do they do that? That’s really interesting as a performer to explore that. We have such a limited scope as female performers in terms of the way women are supposed to behave, that’s one of the things that I love about Wentworth, it’s a series you see women in all shapes and sizes, and also a full spectrum of ethics and morality, and that’s just wonderful. It’s wonderful to be part of that and be allowed to play a woman in a position of authority! Whether she’s a good leader or a bad leader, or a malevolent leader, or a flawed leader. The very fact that you put a woman in a position of kind of supremacy in a group, is a really important and exciting thing to portray.
How best would you summarise season three for UK viewers?
Well, expect the unexpected. The battle’s on, really. That’s what I would say. And no-one comes out unscathed. I would say that’s an overwhelming theme of the show, I remember Kevin Carlin the start-up director, the originating director of the series, I know when he was directing me in my first episodes of series two, as he was talking about the series, he was really excited about this theme which is that no-one works in a prison environment. No-one passes through those doors, either as an inmate or a staff member, without being affected or in fact damaged in some way. So, I guess, no-one comes out unscathed.
The third season of Wentworth Prison begins on Channel 5 at 10pm on July 22.
Season 3 is coming to DVD in the Autumn and will also be available to download. Season 1 & 2 are available to buy now on DVD and digitally.