That day in 2013 when Julia Gillard was ousted as Prime Minister is one that actress Pamela Rabe recalls she will never forget. In the midst of the political chaos, Rabe had other things on her mind.
It was that day Rabe was offered the role of Joan Ferguson in the TV drama Wentworth, a career move that has since turned out to be a game changer for the veteran actress.
Pamela Rabe plays the villain within the Wentworth walls
As she contemplated the job ahead of playing Ferguson, nicknamed ‘The Freak’ in the drama series for her psychotic ways, Rabe found herself fascinated by the political machinations in Canberra.
“The very concept of women in power was in the forefront of my mind at that time, especially the idea of a woman holding power and control when chaos is always just around the corner,” Rabe says.
“Not that I am comparing Gillard to the madness of Joan – in any way – but when a woman is in leadership, as Joan was as the prison governor in our series, I became fascinated by how do you make that work? How do you rise to the challenge? And what do you do when it all goes wrong?”
Aside from Joan’s descent into madness on screen, nothing for Rabe has gone wrong since. Her characterisation of Joan Ferguson has been universally acclaimed, won Rabe an AACTA Award and seen her nominated for a Logie.
When the fifth season of Wentworth premieres in April, Joan is on the other side of the bars, as the prison’s most notorious inmate. With every inmate now wanting her dead, Joan is forced to assert her power by becoming a dangerous physical menace.
In one memorable scene in the first episode, Joan’s violence puts a slew of other prisoners in hospital.
“As a 57-year old woman, it was quite a treat to be given carte blanche in taking on the other women and proving that Joan can take them all out,” Rabe says with a laugh.
“This series demonstrates there is a real hunger for female-driven stories, and a broad spectrum of tales of people of all shapes, sizes, genders and backgrounds – all dealing with life when the stakes are high.”
Rabe has primarily made her career on the Australian stage, having won multiple Helpmann and Green Room awards, including for the recent stage hit The Glass Menagerie. She also won the AFI Best Actress award for the 1997 film, The Well.
Pamela Rabe in STC’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, 2012 (Photo: © Brett Boardman)
Rabe is back on the stage in the coming months, first in Ghosts at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre in September and then The Testament of Mary at Melbourne’s The Malthouse in November.
So, emerging as a TV star in her 50s has provided new opportunities, not to mention new fans.
“After such a long career of mainly stage work, to be offered such a delicious TV role at this point is truly a gift,” she says. “What I remind myself is more people will see one episode of Wentworth than have seen me in every performance of every stage play I have ever done.
“The crossover between audiences watching TV and those coming to the theatre is not huge, but if I can get some of those people who like the series to come along to the theatre, then that’s great.”
Rabe was born in Ontario and raised in Vancouver in Canada, but moved to Australia in 1982 at age 22, and married theatre director Roger Hodgman. She is now an Australian citizen, and calls Melbourne home.
She recalls that those early years in Australia were unsettling.
“I was in my 20s and wondering what I was doing as an actor who believed I had a responsibility to ask questions and reflect the community we live in, and I wondered if I had a right to do that,” she recalls.
“Then when I went back to Canada for a while, everyone there thought I was a foreigner! So, I realised your community is where you put your roots and make your commitment, and I made my commitment to Australia. After that, when I returned to Australia, I knew then I was coming home.”
The much-anticipated Wentworth Season 5 hints that fans will have revenge
Wentworth premieres on Foxtel’s showcase channel on Tuesday, April 4, at 8.30pm.
Photography: (feature image) Ben King