Pamela Rabe: Out Of Wentworth And Onto The Stage

Interview by Liv Steigrad /

We talk the difference between Joan Ferguson, Draco Malfoy, and King Joffrey.

Note: I had the chance to chat to Pamela Rabe, of Wentworth fame (or infamy). There was a small mix-up, and she called the Editor, Silke’s phone instead of mine. When I told Silke who she’d accidentally answered the phone to, she nearly fell off her chair.

You’ve got a bit of variety under your belt – what’s the difference between acting on stage or for film or TV?

Not much! It’s all the same, it’s all about working out what the story needs, how you bounce off your fellow collaborators whether they be the fellow actors, writers, or directors, designers. In the end it’s just a matter of scale sometimes. The biggest difference really is if you work on screen you’re just putting everything out there for other people to put together. If you work on stage, you’re in control of where the story goes. The director goes and it’s just the actors on stage guiding the audience.

What’s your favourite?

I love it all.

The Freak. Wentworth. How on earth do you get inside the head of a character like that?

Just read the scripts!

Really? It’s that easy?

Really! It is, yeah. The givens are pretty extraordinary, the heightened stakes and circumstances. I had the gift of the original creation that Maggie Kirkpatrick brought to life as my starting point, so I’ve got a head start in a way. When I was offered the role, I knew the character would be up to no good. I really felt that the writers would ask her to do extraordinary things, but I’d have to keep one foot based in a kind of psychological reality. That’s the challenge, understanding what we’re doing and not taking it too far. It was my responsibility, to make sure I was creating a psychologically complex character who might be capable of those things.

If it’s as easy as reading the script, do you find some characters harder the play than others? Or is it much of a muchness – are you THAT good.

Of course I’m that good! (Laughs).

No, if you read something and it doesn’t click – very often I’ll accept or reject a role because I know I can do it. There’s something in it, somewhere, that presses a button, makes me think that’s interesting, I’m drawn to that, I want to understand that better, or I want to understand what’s at the core of that feeling, see how it can play out. If it’s not there, I just won’t accept it. Someone else would do it better than me.

Is that something that’s usually been written in to the character or is it something you interpret/relate to/resonates with you.

I think those two things are the same. It has to be there in the first place, but it’s something about you receive and interpret the story as you read it (or as somebody describes it to you) that you relate to on some level. It can be a completely emotional response rather than a rational or logical or intellectual response.

Did you watch Wentworth before getting the part in Season 2?

Yes, subsequent to being offered the role – it hadn’t gone to air yet. But I certainly knew about it, I had several friends who’d been involved in the season who said this was a good one. People were excited, the buzz was strong and the industry knew what it was. When the phone call came a couple months later, I was delighted.

Did you have ANY IDEA how wildly popular Joan would be, when you first read the character?

Not really. You don’t know whether audiences will embrace the whole notion of the series or not. They had their fingers crossed, Prisoner was such a much-loved series, particularly with its international fanbase, but it could’ve gone either way. We were very lucky that they jumped on a reimagining of the series that they loved so much. I’d worked with a lot of the actresses from the original series, so I was aware of the responses they got from audiences at the time. And I’d worked with Maggie Kirkpatrick twice on stage and I could see the adoration they had for her creation Joan Ferguson. But I in no way presumed that would translate as this was going to be a completely different series, but people seem to enjoy it.

I read in another interview of yours that you think people know how to draw a line between evil characters and the actors who play them – I’ve heard some unpleasant stories about the actors who play Draco Malfoy and King Joffrey. Reckon Joan feels more real because she’s not in a fantasy series?

I don’t know, and it’s a little presumptuous of me to even say that. I’m sure there are people who can’t draw a line – I may even have a bit of that problem. But I honestly think the writers and creators put a great deal of work into trying to keep one foot grounded in a pretty confronting reality. I also stay off social media so I let that conversation happen. Who knows what people think, but I’d like to think they accept that they have feelings for the characters but most people can separate between what a character is doing and what an actor is doing.

Your character in Dance Of Death is no angel either – do these types of roles find you or do you find them?

This one was offered to me, I was pretty excited about it though I have a slightly ambivalent feeling towards August Strindberg so you know, late 19th century Swedish playwright known for the darkness and a well-known misogynist. So, it’s a troubled and dark world that you know you’re going to have to plunge into. But Judy Davis was directing and seeing the other cast members, I thought I have to go back in there, I have to go back into the dark.

At this point, Pamela was hustled off to do a costume fitting. You can catch her in The Dance Of Death  at Belvoir Theatre Co, from November 10 to December 23.


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