Pamela Rabe used to be self-conscious about her Canadian accent. But she took Australian citizenship because she wanted commitment.
Pamela Rabe probably won’t thank me for this, but she is probably about to become a household name. She is in two movies and two television series, all in the same year.
She won’t thank me because Pamela Rabe is not one of those knocking on the celebrity door. She is thrilled that her work as an actor might be recognised, but any “fame” that might come with it is an uncomfortable notion.
The two movies, already well-received, are ‘Cosi‘, and ‘Vacant Possession‘. The television series, both for the ABC, are ‘Mercury‘, and ‘The Bite‘. Pamela Rabe is a baddie in both the television series.
She’s not when you meet her. She is soft and smooth and tall and very striking. She is also reticent, which is why I trod the careful path first, through early days.
“There was a certain effort to keep us occupied,” she said. I had asked her about her childhood in Canada, where she was the seventh of eight children. “We were sent off to things like music.“
With so many children, they were able to form an orchestra of sorts. There was a trombone, a French horn, a saxophone, a flute, classical guitar, even bagpipes.
Pamela was on the French horn and must have been good, because she went on to play in a junior symphony orchestra in Vancouver. “That experience of being a group and creating something had a big impact.“
What Pamela means is that her family was not particularly artistic, and so it might have been the music that put her in the right direction. All her brothers and sisters ended up as scientists or paramedics.
“It sounds like a successful family,” I said.
“Nobody’s a drug addict, nobody’s in jail, nobody’s dead.“
Her father, Bill, died last year. He was a public servant, an engineer, who liked a drink. What intrigues Rabe now is how the Canada she remembers seemed to be infested with closet drinkers. Drinking was never out in the open. There was a formidable body called the Liquor Control Board whose job was to instil into Canadians that although alcohol was legal it was also a sin, and if you drank it, you were required to be ashamed and do it secretly.
She remembers the liquor shops, where there was some weird system whereby empty sample bottles of liquor they stored somewhere out the back were glued to a shelf. And when you ordered, you wrote on a ticket which bottle you had in mind.
Canadians, Rabe told me, tend to drink spirits, mainly rye whiskey. When she returned to Canada a few years ago, she was walking in a supermarket around midday when something stirred her memory. It was a smell.
“It was in a supermarket in Ontario. I had a very emotional response. I thought, what is that? I haven’t smelt that for years. You know what it was? It was whiskey on the breath of the people walking past me in the supermarket.
“When I came to Australia it was quite a shock to realise that you never walked more than half a block without hitting a pub.
“I was determined not to follow that pattern of secret drinking.“
“Was your home a happy household?“
“Ah yes. I’m only beginning to realise how much fun it was, because of all the people around. As a kid you take for granted what you’ve got. “
“Neither rich nor poor?“
“Solid middle class. I had my own bedroom only when everyone had left, when I was in my late teens.“
“Was solitude difficult to find?“
“Probably physical solitude was. I could always find a quiet corner, even if other people were in the room. That’s had an effect too. I like having people around, but I’m not very socially active.
“If I have made any sort of impact at all, it is with other people’s words, as an actor. I’m so insecure about being inarticulate, and about being thought to be stupid. So it’s a thrill to be able to use other people’s wonderful words.“
“Do you ever miss Canada now?“
“Only at times like my father’s death. You miss the solace and the comfort of family, and you get that glimpse of the short time we have on this planet. Then I’m reminded of people I love very much who are over there. But almost half of my life has been here now, and almost all of my adult life. So I just associate Canada with nostalgia and my childhood.“
Picture: Craig Abraham
Pamela Rabe was born in 1959. She came to Melbourne in 1983 because she had met Roger Hodgman in Vancouver. Hodgman is now director of the Melbourne Theatre Company.
In the early 1980s, he was teaching acting in Canada, and he met the young actress Pamela Rabe. They married and came to Australia.
“I have a little bit of that anxiety that if I let go of my tentative hold on my Australianness, if I let go it might all disappear.“
“What can you remember about arriving in this strange place on the other side of the world?“
“I walked a lot. I had a couple of weeks living in Camberwell, and then we lived in Carlton. I walked everywhere. And I took trams. It was my way of pissing on lamp posts, establishing territory. In the end, I could give other people directions.“
She must have felt somewhat dis-oriented though, because at one stage she took It upon herself to seek assistance from the Migrant Advisory Service.
“It was probably to find out about things like Medicare. I’ll never forget the look on the face of the poor woman across the counter when she realised that I spoke English. It’s interesting the things that people assume. Because I spoke English I couldn’t possibly need assistance.
“I spent about six months where I hardly spoke to anyone but my husband and step-daughter. I branded myself whenever I opened my mouth. So I didn’t. Then often I wouldn’t speak for seven days. I suppose I was very self-conscious.“
These days, Pamela Rabe has a soft, attractive voice with an accent that might be termed neutral. I imagine it would be easily understood in all of England, Australia, Canada and the United States.
“I got a job at a pub …“
“The Lemon Tree Hotel. I worked behind the bar, and in the restaurant. I wanted to get out of the house. Roger was head of acting at the drama school at the Victorian College of the Arts.
“I did a general round of auditions. The usual. Show us your teeth. Show us your fingernails.
“I was at the Lemon Tree for about a year. It was fantastic. A wonderful group of people who, well, taught me a lot, I think. Like colloquialisms. So now, if I’m in Canada I might say something like ‘take the mickey out of’ and my brother will say, what did you say?
“At the Lemon Tree, I had a great deal of difficulty with ‘I’m right thanks’. You know, you’d say, can I get you something and the reply would be ‘I’m right thanks’. And so I was getting used to the language. And relaxing.
“I only think about all this when people ask me. I mean, my attitude towards being a Canadian-born Australian.“
“I believe you got naturalised.“
“Yes. In 1987. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And for practical reasons, like coming back into the country. But also, it’s something to do with that grip. I wanted to make that commitment. Like marriage, really.
“I remember being in that room at the naturalisation ceremony. There were about 50 of us, and they read out a list of the countries we all came from. I felt like a fraud. A sham.“
“Thinking of the great symbolism for other people in the room. Some of them came from countries that no longer exist. They were … like grabbing lifebuoys in the storm. It was a huge thing to get that Australian passport. Whereas for me, it wasn’t that difficult. You know, I didn’t get my little tree.“
“What little tree?“
“They gave everyone a little tree to take home and plant. I missed out on it. I don’t know what happened.“
Our discussion meandered on to Rabe’s present situation. She is doubtful that the sudden quadruple exposure will launch her into fame.
“Had I known that ‘Mercury‘ and ‘The Bite‘ were coming out at the same time I’d have changed my haircut. I’m still not ‘TV Week’ material. But I’m in a pretty enviable position. I keep thinking, this is it, it will be all downhill from here.
“An artist’s work is all peaks and troughs. There can be real droughts. I think at this particular stage I’m having wonderful opportunities. It’s so unusual. At the same time, I’m not burdened with excessive celebrity. It’s sweet where I am right now.
“I don’t know that I could handle celebrity very well. I don’t like being looked at. I don’t associate my talent with who I am. I love it when.. my work gets attention. But nnot when it’s turned on me.“
“You don’t feel that people like you are rather hidden, being in Australia?“
“Oh, absolutely not. The opposite. I wonder if I would have had’ the same opportunities in Canada, or even if I’d made it in the United States. What’s so wonderful in Australia is our ability to embrace all sorts, all types. The abnormal, the quirky.
“I feel now that when I walked through the door in the ’80s, rather than be put off by my looks, my height, my accent, I was instead’ welcomed. I doubt that would have happened in Canada or the United States.
“I notice it in what I see on the stage. But there’s a downside. We have such an obsession with the new, the quirky and so on that people can be thrust too soon into the limelight.“
I asked if she had any pleasures or passions outside of her work.
“My husband. We’ve been together since 1979. I’ve grown up with him. He’s a lovely, lovely man. He’s enormously indulgent of my…”
She searched for the word.
“Indulgent of your what?”
“I don’t know. Just living with me.“
When I asked if there were any books or movies that had provided a real turning point, Pamela Rabe swung around and said: “I just love that sort of question.“
But then she couldn’t really think of anything.
“Eventually, a smile played on her lips as she remembered watching movies during childhood and ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and the Narnia chronicles of C. S. Lewis.
“And as an adult, I became deeply obsessed with Orson Welles and ‘Citizen Kane’. And Alfred Hitchcock. ‘Rebecca’. I just loved those films. I am always moved by ‘Rebecca’. But there’s a point where you turn off.“
“Could it be,” I suggested, “the incredibly wooden performance of Laurence Olivier? I mean, Joan Fontaine was only 20 or so, but she acted him off the screen. She was perfect.“
Rabe decided that the turn-off point comes when Olivier suddenly stuns his young wife by announcing chillingly that he had actually hated Rebecca, and suddenly all the sexual tension drains from the story, but the movie plods on through a boring court case, although it then revives at the end with the incredible fire at Mandalay.
“What would you like to do next?“
“I would like to think I have a vision of what I am heading for, but I know that I don’t.
“I used to worry about this until I was told that actors should live for the moment. I just grabbed at that.
“I am a terrible procrastinator. I’m terrible if anyone asks me to write something. I tie myself in knots.
“I would hope to reach 50 and find all the knots untied. I would hope that if I ran out of steam that I could change careers. “Wake up one day and find that I am something else. I don’t want to be locked into being a disappointed actor.
“As I say, it might be all downhill from here. And I don’t want to be trapped into a nostalgia for the good old days.“
Source: The Age | 28 April 1996