Having worked together many times in the years since meeting in 1996 on the set of Australian film Paradise Road, last year saw long-time friends Pamela Rabe and Marta Dusseldorp reunite on the small screen as inmates in FOXTEL Original prison drama Wentworth.
While Dusseldorp was thrown into the slammer in season eight, part one’s penultimate episode as True Path cult leader Sheila Bausch, Rabe – who joined in season two as Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson – was brought back from the dead during season seven’s finale, before finding herself incarcerated again midway through season eight.
“Marta’s character arrived just as the world was crashing into the pandemic and there were a lot of distractions and concerns and anxiety, so to have an actor of her stature and skill and professionalism and strength enter the space was another thing to help keep us focused,” Rabe enthuses. “It was a mad rush, because her scenes were to be completed and we thought we would have one more day of shooting… but we got a call saying don’t come in, the country was being stood down.
“So it was a pressure cooker, but she was a trooper. And she had some extraordinary things to do. We all do in this series.”
Still, as a self-confessed fan of Wentworth prior to signing on as Sheila, Dusseldorp wouldn’t have had it any other way. Getting to work with her friends was simply the icing on the cake.
“I wouldn’t have done the show if I wasn’t a fan, if I didn’t love it,” she insists. “Pamela’s a real champion. We only had one scene together but it was so fun. You don’t have to make it up. It’s the same with Susie Porter [the actress, who plays Marie Winter, also appeared in Paradise Road] – I do a lot of scenes with her in Wentworth and we were just: boom! It was just this meeting of everything.
“We laughed together, we cried together on set, in our characters and in our scenes, and pushed each other in ways that you want to, because you trust that they have your back and vice versa. So it was a real treat for me.”
Likewise, getting to play the ‘baddie’ was a welcome change of pace.
“I love playing bad women – in fact, on stage I have before and it’s always a pleasure,” Dusseldorp admits. “That was my challenge: to make her compelling and sympathetic.
I completely understand and never judge my characters, because it’s not helpful. In fact, you have to find a way to make them so believable and true and driven by something other than just that they’re bad.”
For Rabe – who presents a catch-up special prior to the new season called Wentworth Unlocked on August 17 – though it was unexpected, the opportunity to reprise her much-feared character following a two-season hiatus meant the absolute world to her.
“It was criminal when they buried Joan Ferguson alive in a box and I know Marcia Gardner, the head of the script department, always felt that Joan’s story was not finished,” Rabe explains. “But I went to one of our producers who I knew I could trust to give me a straight answer and I said, ‘Is there any chance this character’s going to come back?’ and she just laughed in my face: ‘No.’ So I just thought that was a wonderful few years of my life, a great work family, a wonderful opportunity, a great character to play, love youse all, bye. And I think they had completed season seven, which they thought at that time was going to be the final, and then I got a phone call saying, ‘How would you like to come out of the box?’”
Being a part of Wentworth’s final-ever instalment was even more special, as it meant reigniting Joan’s cat-and-mouse game with her one-time friend-turned-nemesis Vera Bennett (Kate Atkinson).
“It’s wonderful [to be back], but it’s wonderful on a personal level because – and I don’t say it glibly – it was an extraordinary work family,” she shares.
“The other thing that made me very happy to be involved for the final season was that the stories weren’t finished and I know that Marcia and the whole writing team really wanted that opportunity to be able to tie up so many loose ends. They took so much care. There are stories that come home that were seeded in the very first episode of the first season, and to be able to have that made it feel exquisite.
“There’s a real struggle going on through this final season, working out which side of Joan is going to connect with Vera – the side that wants to destroy the things that mean something to her or the side that wants to nurture it.”
So it’s safe to say that fans are in for a thrilling experience?
“Everyone’s story has had life-and-death stakes and I don’t know how the writers do it: from episode to episode, season to season, maintaining and improving on such a level of quality, but also edge-of-your-seat suspense and, somehow, while still keeping one foot in the credible world, making the stakes go higher and higher,” Rabe says in awe. “There’s no way we could end without something truly extraordinary.”
WENTWORTH UNLOCKED Tuesday August 17 at 8.30pm on FOX SHOWCASE  and watch On Demand
WENTWORTH THE FINAL SENTENCE starts August 24, Tuesdays at 8.30pm on FOX SHOWCASE  and watch On Demand
WENTWORTH POP-UP CHANNEL  Continues until Tuesday August 24
WENTWORTH (s1-8 part 1) available to watch On Demand
Words Carolyn Hiblen