Two days before her first appearance in the cast of the top-ranked TV show, “NCIS,” actress Cote de Pablo was given the script of a lengthy phone conversation — in Hebrew.
“I got a Hebrew teacher and didn’t rest or sleep for 48 hours,” recalled the tall, slim, dark-haired actress. “I wanted to do the language justice. I want to apologize to all Israelis if I didn’t succeed, but boy, did I try.”
De Pablo, born in Chile’s capital of Santiago, plays Mossad agent Ziva David, lending an exotic touch to the all-American ensemble of the CBS “JAG” spin-off series, now in its fourth season.
The job of the show’s six-person elite team from the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service is to crack all crimes involving, in any way, a member of the Navy or Marine Corps.
Consistently rated among the top 15 prime-time shows on American television — and in half a dozen other countries — in a recent week NCIS reached the No. 1 spot. It stands out in the well-worn genre for compelling story lines, intense pace and frequent leavenings of humor.
At the beginning of a nearly two-hour interview at a Hollywood restaurant, the 29-year-old actress greeted a reporter in South American style, with kisses on both cheeks (it’s a rough job, but someone has to do it).
How had she managed the transition from a nice Chilean girl, educated in a private Catholic school, to the role of an Israeli agent, customarily wearing a pistol on her hip and a golden Star of David around her neck?
“Ziva David was a new character, introduced at the beginning of the third season last year, and our executive producer, Don Bellisario, conducted a worldwide search for the part,” De Pablo said.
“I was one of the last to audition, and I don’t think they had a clear idea of what they wanted. So I interpreted Ziva as a cool, competent woman, not the usual Hollywood sex symbol with big boobs, but [someone] who was comfortable in her own sexuality and used to working with men on an equal footing,” she explained. “It helped that by my looks, I could be taken for almost any nationality.”
In her very first episode, De Pablo established Ziva David’s background and crammed in enough action to fill a full season. The character’s father, the deputy director of Mossad, had sent her to the United States to rescue her half-brother, Ari Haswari, who had killed a veteran NCIS female agent.
Ari and Ziva have the same father, but his mother is Arab (all right, some creative plotting here), and she discovers that he has gone psycho and turned into a Hamas terrorist.
Ziva ends up killing Ari, thus saving the life of NCIS team leader Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), who quickly figures that he can use someone of Ziva’s talents.
Starting on this dramatic note, David/De Pablo has since proven her value as a straight-shooting agent and as an actress, though she considers that her character “is still under construction.”
David’s Jewish identity rarely comes up in the series, although in one episode, a redneck character, noting her Star of David pendant, observes, “We don’t deal with your kind here.”
A running ploy plays off David’s foreign origin, and De Pablo — who speaks like a native-born American — has to feign a slight accent for her role. She is also the occasional butt of good-natured kidding when she draws a blank at an American slang expression.
De Pablo does get quite a few letters from Jewish men, who wonder whether she is an actual Member of the Tribe. Other Jewish admirers pay her the ultimate accolade, “You rock.”
The actress spent the first 10 years of her life in Santiago, the eldest daughter of an upper-class, right-wing family and, given the social stratification of Chilean society, never met a Jewish child or, for that matter, any poor people.
That sheltered environment changed when her mother, a television personality in Chile, was offered a job at a Spanish-language network in Miami. In an unusual gesture for a macho Latino, her father agreed to give up his business and the entire family moved to Florida.
At age 13, De Pablo started taking acting, singing and dancing lessons in Miami, and in her late teens, struck out on her own to study music and theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
While there, she took a psychology class and took her teacher’s advice as her personal motto: “Never say yes, if you want to say no.”
“Those words gave me the strength to be honest and to speak my mind, which, I think, is a very Israeli trait,” De Pablo mused.
She graduated in 2000, and the same year moved to New York, where she discovered a Jewish environment and the harsh realities of show business for an aspiring actress. The once-cocooned upper-class girl moved into a tiny apartment, made the endless auditioning rounds and worked as a waitress in an Indian restaurant in Manhattan and an Italian eatery in Brooklyn.
Gradually, she started getting small parts with the New York City Public Theater; in the TV soap opera, “All My Children”; and in a brief but memorable Volkswagen commercial as a hip-swinging charmer.
By 2005, she was ready for her Broadway debut as one of the female leads in “The Mambo Kings.”
Along the way, De Pablo had an extended relationship with a Jewish boyfriend, whose family had emigrated from Europe.
“I was really impressed by the women in the family,” she recalled. “They were such incredibly passionate, opinionated and independent women.”
She also immersed herself in the history of World War II, the Holocaust, the capture of Adolf Eichmann and “became fascinated by the Jews’ struggle for survival,” she said. “I identified with them.”
Now, De Pablo works frequent 14-hour days, five days a week, on the set of “NCIS” and has adopted the cast as her “family.” She has little time for hiking, her favorite recreation, or visiting unspoiled, nontouristy places, and is surprisingly frank about her lack of social life.