The NCIS star talks about her love of family, her health battle with birth control, and how yoga keeps her centered
Fans love the ensemble cast of NCIS, but a key part of the show’s megasuccess rests on the strong yet delicate shoulders of Cote de Pablo, who plays Ziva David, the former Israeli Mossad liaison who seems to have no idea how gorgeous she is. Even if you don’t yet know her name, you certainly know her face, as the show is a ratings hit, especially this season. So who is de Pablo off set? That’s a delightful surprise. The 31-year-old woman who brings to life a steely, never-see-her-sweat probationary agent each week happily describes herself as an old-soul Latina hippie who loves hanging out with her mom, a former TV newscaster.
1. Finding her “tribe”
When you were ten, you moved with your parents and two siblings from Santiago, Chile, to Miami, FL. Was that hard? I missed my country and my friends terribly. But I was raised here. And I found my niche because I went to a performing arts high school. I had always been interested in the arts, but performing became even more important because it was a way to communicate with people in my new country. It wasn’t till I got to the United States that I learned to speak English. My friend had the perfect saying for it: “You found your tribe.” We’re not Chilean or Argentinean or Brazilian or Russian. We’re actors.
Sounds like it was a formative experience. Those were defining years for me. I always describe myself as sort of a hippie. Deep inside, I’m not a glamorous person. I come from a traditional, conservative world. But this kind of hippie world at school allowed me to explore the creativity and imagination that live inside all of us.
You don’t seem like a hippie, though. I always say I’ll be a great older character actor [laughs] because I somehow identify with women who have gone through things, like the women in Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. Maybe it’s because I’m an older soul. I don’t know why at such a young age I could understand where they were coming from. Maybe it was the loss of my country at such a young age. Maybe it does something to you.
2. How she bonds with her mom
Your parents separated a few years ago, and your mom has moved back to Chile. You must miss her. One of my favorite things is when my mom comes to visit. She stays with me for two to three weeks. Then I go to South America and I’m with her. We do a lot of cooking. It’s our time to bond. My mom has a rare talent for being able to open up the refrigerator, and with the peas, the leftover eggs, the cream, the spinach, the cheese, and a little rice, she can just whip up incredible risotto.
That’s an amazing talent. Yes, that’s one of the things I love about her–just going with the drift, seeing what you can make out of what you have. I tried to pick up on that talent a little bit, but hers is innate.
3. Her 2-year birth control battle
So you love food–but you’ve never had a weight problem. I had lots of issues with my stomach a few years ago. I had wanted to get off the Pill, because I’d been on it for a while and I thought that at some point I would want to get pregnant. So I took a shot of Depo-Provera for birth control. Within two months, voom, I gained fifteen pounds in my belly because it felt like it was pregnant. It was an eye-opener.
It really affected you, didn’t it? There were two ways of looking at it: You could say, “Oh, God,” and cry about it, or say, “You know what? This is who I am. I’m going to be carrying a little more weight, and I don’t care.” Sometimes nature needs to do what it has to do to get something out of your system. And then, once it’s out, you’re fine.
How long did it last? It took me about two years to get back on track. I went back on the Pill, and eventually everything went back to the way it had always been. I feel so much better now.
4. DIY stunt risks
Do you feel better because you’re working out again? I only just went back to exercising because I injured my neck, working on the show. So I was out [of the gym] for about a month.
What happened? It was a very simple stunt. I had to say one line, turn around, and then there would be explosions, gunshots, all sorts of things. But we had never rehearsed it, so I had no idea what it was going to be like. When the stunt started, I was trying to scream my line, because of course as an actor, you’re like, “Remember your lines–you only have one pass at this, ’cause they can’t re-create the entire explosion!” But it was like being in the middle of a war zone. We were supposed to be in a big restaurant kitchen, and I was being hit by flying cabbage–I still have the bruises on my legs. [A few days later] I woke up in horrible neck pain. My mother always used to say, “You don’t think about your teeth until you have a cavity.” It was the same thing with my neck. But it’s 100% better now. Because of that injury I’m going back to yoga.
5. Why she’s a yoga fanatic
What sort of yoga do you practice? Four or five days a week, I do open flow Vinyasa [breath-synchronized yoga]. I bring a teacher, who happens to be a great friend, to my house. You look at this woman’s body and you go, “Wow, the benefits of yoga!” You can see that there’s a lift everywhere. And it’s completely natural. There’s nothing fake about her body. I love natural beauty.
6. Her biggest health concern
Are there health issues in your family that you worry about? Cancer runs in our family. I lost my grandmother to it. There’s a saying that you meet people and instantly know them. My grandmother and I had that. The first time my heart was broken was when my grandmother passed away. I was twenty-one.
Do you feel close to her still? Oh, yes, completely. That’s the nearest I came to knowing that God exists. When she got sick, I was living in the States, and my dad called and said, “You have twelve hours to get here, because she’s waiting for you.” I’ll never forget that flight, because I threw myself on the floor, crying the whole time. I cried so much on the plane that by the time I got there, I couldn’t cry anymore. I held her hand and said to myself, This is not the grandmother I knew. This is not the person I loved. She couldn’t say anything, she was so consumed with cancer. I left the room and went into a stairwell where the sun was coming in. I remember looking up and being so angry at God. I said, “If you exist, you will take my grandmother within twenty minutes. If you don’t, I’ll never believe in you again.” Within ten minutes, she was gone. That’s why I say to everybody, “God’s there. He’s there.”
With a history of cancer in the family, how do you take extra precautions? I believe that a lot of what we put in our bodies really can harm us. It’s been proven that people who eat Mediterranean and Japanese diets live for a very long time. I always think, Let’s see how many quality years we can get. My brother and sister and I talk about this a lot. When you’re young, you think you’re going to live forever, but you don’t.
7. The health rule she never breaks
Working so much, do you ever feel sleep deprived? Yes. I have to have eight hours a night. I feel that everything falls apart if you don’t sleep. If I spend four hours memorizing dialogue but don’t sleep, then the next day I will not be able to stand in front of the camera and say my lines. For me, sleep is the number one thing.
8. What she’s learned from her alter ego
In what ways do you identify with Ziva? My character’s strength is like mine, to a completely different degree. Losing family members because of a war… I have moments when I just have to hold my heart. But I also have to remember that if I played the character from my point of view, she’d be falling apart all the time. She has to keep it together–it’s the world she grew up in.
What were some of the bigger challenges you faced in order to play her? I had literally forty-eight hours to learn a monologue in Hebrew. That was terrifying. I used to look down on people who were, for example, playing a Latin role, because I could tell that they didn’t speak Spanish. It would get on my nerves. Then I realized, Oh, God, I’m in that place right now. Everything I had judgments on has turned around and bitten me in the butt.
9. On being Latina in Hollywood
Do you think opportunities are improving for Latin actresses? It’s funny because right now I’m acting with an Israeli girl. She came up to me and said, “You could pass for Israeli.” I thanked her, and then she mentioned that her friend is playing a Latina, but she’s an Israeli. And that’s the beauty of it. If you can convince the people you’re supposed to convince that you are whatever it is that you’re playing, well, that’s your job, isn’t it?