PAMELA RABE WAS JUST AS SHOCKED AS ANYONE ABOUT HER RETURN TO WENTWORTH, WRITES CAMERON ADAMS
Even when Joan The Freak’ Ferguson was buried alive in Wentworth three years ago, fans of the hit Foxtel drama series still weren’t convinced she was dead. For Pamela Rabe, whose chilling performance of Ferguson saw her win a Logie for Most Outstanding Actress in 2018, she was certain she’d filmed her final scenes and The Freak had gone for good. While she came back “to haunt (nemesis) Will Jackson” a few times in flashback scenes in the next season, she decompressed from portraying one of Australian television’s darkest characters through comedy (starring in limited series Pitting Adelaide) and her beloved theatre work. But if anyone could cheat death, even when buried in the bush, it was The Freak. Not only was Wentworth saved from being axed in part after fans campaigned for its return, but Rabe got the call back too for the series’ final season, which started filming this year and will play out until 2021.
“I assumed Joan was gone, and she’d gone out with a bang,” Rabe tells The BINGE Guide.
“I was as surprised as anyone to get the phone call but I’m thrilled it happened. I didn’t expect to come back to Wentworth, and I don’t think many of my fellow cast members knew until I rocked up to the set again.
“The story wasn’t finished, not just the Joan Ferguson story but the whole arc of the show. The writing department at Wentworth lay seeds for a very long arc of stories. That long arc wasn’t finished yet. I’m thrilled for them they get to finish this off properly and I’m lucky they considered Joan Ferguson to be a part of that.”
Rabe is being modest – Joan Ferguson is inextricably linked to Wentworth, the actor providing a weekly masterclass in how to shape a psychotic character from being a one-dimensional monster.
The Freak’s bodycount is alarmingly high (including the death of original top dog Bea Smith) and during her time inside —going from prison boss to prisoner — she’s cut out an inmate’s tongue, indulged in casual blackmail and nearly killed new top dog Allie Novak (Kate Jenkison) with a potentially lethal hotshot.
“It’s always hard,” Rabe says of moving back into Freak mode.
“She’s such a gothic, almost mythic force in the series. They take extra effort to make sure the character stays grounded in the gritty realism of the show. That gets more and more challenging the more she gets up to. They’re constantly throwing me curve balls and giving me extraordinary acting challenges to try to meet.” Rabe is guarded about The Freak’s upcoming return from presumed death (“Wentworth is very secret squirrel”) but teases the tense relationship between her character and former mentor Vera Bennett (Kate Atkinson) is another “story that’s not finished”.
For the two years Rabe wasn’t working on Wentworth, she remained a passionate fan.
“I’d watch it voraciously, like everyone else, sitting on the edge of my seat, watching it every week as each new episode came out, like the rest of the world,” she says.
Her husband, Roger Hodgman, directed two episodes of series six of Wentworth (after Rabe had left the show) but the pair are working together on several of the final episodes on series eight. They established early on to never bring work home when part of the same project. Rabe even briefly relocated to Sydney when Hodgman became artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company — a role he held from 1988 to 1999. “I didn’t want to feel it was nepotism giving me the jobs but my own qualities as an actor, and the MTC was the main employer in town,” she says.
The couple, who were isolating in Tasmania until relocating to Melbourne for Wentworth last month (“We probably won’t see Tasmania for some time now we’re poxy Melburnians and they don’t want to see any of us”) have upheld their policy of not talking about work outside of the prison set.
“Partly for self preservation, we need to think about things other than work, pillow talk is not helpful,” Rabe says. “And when we’re working together on shows you don’t want to be making decisions outside of working hours that you then take into rehearsal room which exclude the collaborations and imaginations of all the artists involved. It just made sense and it probably saved our marriage.” Rabe and Hodgman are acutely aware of the global popularity of Wentworth and Joan Ferguson; the drama airs in more than 100 countries, with Rabe scoring fan mail from the Middle East to Iceland.
She stays off social media (“That’s a conversation that should be had, but it’s right that I’m not part of it”) and is touched by the old school letters sent to her.
“Joan has a very interesting fanbase, by definition,” she says.
“People have interesting responses to Joan’s particular vulnerabilities or qualities. People are intrigued by the feeling there’s a broken human being there and they might relate to having a repressed life that is not fully realised. I have yet to have anybody who has admitted to committing anything like the crimes that Joan has. They’re looking beyond that, they’re looking at the complexity of a broken human being.”
The 61-year-old has taken part in several Wentworth conventions, meeting and greeting diehard fans of the drama; but she insists they know the difference between the actor and the character.
“I don’t think the line gets blurred very much,” she says.
“Sometimes on the street it can be a bit blurred, people will laugh and say, ‘Oh my God I’m so scared’. I do my best to try and put them at ease. People recognise quickly you are not who you play.
“I am amazed at the number of people who’ve taken the time to address you by my name and not my characters’ name, I find that quite moving. It’s a gesture of respect I really appreciate.”
“It’s been such a joy, from beginning to the approaching end,” she says. “We’re revelling in the stories we’re telling right now. There is some extraordinary stuff coming up. I will be incredibly sad to say goodbye to the Wentworth world, as I’m sure the fans will be, but I feel lucky that the character has been woven in and out of the story as much as she has.
“But to be honest, I think there’s life in it yet. The wonderful thing about a prison context, many people come in, some don’t leave, some get a happy resolution to their story, some get a traumatic resolution to their story. There are so many characters and I wish those stories would keep going.”
WENTWORTH: REDEMPTION 8.30PM. TUESDAY, FOX SHOWCASE
Source: The Sunday Mail / The Binge Guide
Cover Photo by Narelle Potanier