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(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 was given a Hebrew teacher and didn't rest or sleep for 48 hours," recalls the tall, slim, raven-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 Santiago, plays Mossad agent Ziva David, lending an exotic touch to the all-American ensemble of NCIS.
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.
Now in its fourth season, NCIS is consistently rated among the 10 most watched prime time shows on American television - and in half a dozen other countries.
At the beginning of a nearly two-hour interview, the 29-year old actress greeted a Jerusalem Post reporter in South American style, with kisses on both cheeks.
How, we wondered, 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," explained de Pablo.
"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 who was comfortable in her own sexuality and used to working with men on an equal footing," she added. "It helped that by my looks, I could be taken for almost any nationality."
In her very first episode, de Pablo established Ziva's background and crammed in enough action to fill a full season. Her 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 Ziva 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, Ziva/Cote has since proven her value as a straight-shooting agent and as an actress, though she considers that her character "is still under construction."
Ziva's Jewish identity rarely comes up in the series, though in one episode a redneck character, noting her State of David, observes, "We don't deal with your kind here."
De Pablo, who speaks like a native-born American, has to feign a slight accent for her part. She is also the occasional butt of good-natured kidding when she draws a blank at an American slang expression.
She also gets quite a few letters from Jewish men, who wonder whether she is an actual member of the tribe, while 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 TV 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 adopted her teacher's advice as her personal motto: "Never say yes, if you want to say no."
Muses de Pablo, "Those words gave me the strength to be honest and to speak my mind, which, I think, is a very Israeli trait."
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. The once cocooned upper class girl moved into a tiny apartment, made the endless auditioning rounds. Gradually, she started getting small parts with the New York City Public Theater and in the TV soap opera All My Children. 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 recalls. "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 says. "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.
"Culturally, I am in no man's landâ€¦I am neither Chilean nor American," she continues. "I have few friends and they are all Latinos involved in the arts...If I had to play a Los Angeles woman, I wouldn't be able to identify. It's easier for me to understand European or Israeli women, who know about the harshness of life and have unspoken inner strength."
Just recently, de Pablo was invited by the Israeli government to visit the country for the first time.
"I am dying to go," she says. "Maybe I will even meet a real Mossad agent."