Pamela Rabe delights in playing the resident baddie in Wentworth, writes Siena Yates.

There is careful consideration placed on the words Pamela Rabe chooses to use.

She speaks thoughtfully and at a measured pace, often sounding chillingly like Joan Ferguson, her character in Aussie prison drama Wentworth.

The problem with that is, Joan Ferguson is the show's resident baddie - a manipulative, unfeeling sociopath. But from what I've learned about Rabe I reckon she'd get a weird kick out of blurring the line.

Not because she's anything like the character who is tellingly nicknamed "The Freak" - Rabe is very warm, humble and a fan of New Zealand to boot.


Rather, it's because she delights in her character's awfulness, revels in the fact that she never knows what's coming next.

I once spoke to Rabe's Wentworth cast mate Nicole da Silva (Franky Doyle), who said if she could play any other character on the show, it would be Joan Ferguson. Rabe, on the other hand, wouldn't change a thing.

"Frankly, I am busy enough just trying to wear the many masks they keep shoving in front of Joan," she says.

"Probably at some point I will make Joan take a stab at playing everyone one of them, or mirroring what each one of them is doing in order to survive, but at the moment I've got enough on my hands."

Last season ended with Joan - the prison governor - starting a fire and endangering the lives of the prisoners, as well as a baby. So this season sees her (spoiler alert) become an inmate in the very prison she used to run.

As a result, we get to see exactly what she's talking about: Joan Ferguson shows her expertise at playing different roles - the unassuming older woman, the vulnerable patient, the authoritative former governor, the sympathetic friend - all to get what she wants.

And despite Rabe having been in the business for more than 35 years, figuring out this particular character is a challenge even for her.

"Even just as an actor I found that I was constantly sort of feeling, 'I don't know where I am, I don't know who I am, I don't know where I am, I don't know who I am.' And I think that's The Freak's problem as well - her roles change so dramatically in the season she really has to work hard."

And here on the brink of season four, Rabe says "I don't know that you've even met [the real Joan Ferguson] yet".

"The writers have thrown some pretty curly ones at me," Rabe laughs, for the first time sounding totally removed from Joan, whose rare smiles are usually more like smirks.

Pamela Rabe is fascinated by her character's ability to detach emotionally.
Pamela Rabe is fascinated by her character's ability to detach emotionally.

"But [Joan] is someone who defines herself by her ability to overcome those obstacles - she will never give up without a fight ... without winning. But that doesn't make her invincible."

Her weakness, Rabe says, is how removed she is from her own feelings and motivations. Rabe is fascinated by her character's ability to detach emotionally - "to know what knobs to turn off and which ones to turn up".

"She's someone who is skilled at vacating her body and shutting off that valve - they're actually the most terrifying people in the world," she says.

"When I read those scripts it was like, 'Oh my God, I think she's willing to hurl herself off a burning building to achieve what she wants to achieve'."

But even Rabe doesn't know what that endgame is. Still, she takes a long pause and her Joan-like smirk is almost audible through the phone as she takes a punt anyway:

"She would be God."

I laugh. Rabe does not.

"She would be top of the mount. Prime Minister. Or President of the United States," she continues. "Mistress of the Universe."

One thing's for sure, Rabe is clearly relishing the journey just as much as The Freak.

Low down


Pamela Rabe plays Joan Ferguson, aka The Freak


Mondays, 8.30pm