Can a steamy Chilean pepper-pot of an actress pack the heat needed to play a secret-service agent whose hardboiled hand-to-hand fisticuffs first played out in the sunbaked sand dunes of Israel?
Not for Cote de Pablo, whose coat of arms — and armament — bears an Israeli flag and firearms as her Ziva David adds zest to CBS' all-cap pistol of a military procedural, "NCIS."
As the "NCIS" heat-seeking missile of a Mossad member — on loan from Israel — Ziva zigs as others zag, getting used to accompanying her new American unit on their bits and drills.
She is not one you'd want to meet in a back-alley shuk.
All shook up? That's the freshness she's injected into "NCIS," which just wrapped its fourth season with military honors and where second-season de Pablo is de anti-pablum, a no-nonsense ninja of a nemesis for those nasty evil-doers who soon discover that the Israeli is for real.
It's a kick for the tribe's new Jew-jitsu, ass-kicking combat-in-arms, whose occasional malaprops give props to the actress' protean talents, sparked by her South America roots and Miami nice upbringing after moving there at age 12.
The lovely multi-lingual Latina has no problem playing a multi-lingual sabra on set. Except there is that little problem feeling a little lame around those lameds. Does she have a prayer at taking on tefilah?
Not even the alpha males of "NCIS" can help her with her alephs.
Well, maybe there is one. She is helped with her Hebrew by a tutor. "Maybe it's because I speak Spanish, and Hebrew and Spanish really have nothing in common," she says of learning to get beit to basics.
"When I learn it, I learn it like a prayer, chanting it for a while."
Ear today, language tomorrow; it's not so hard after all: "I have a good ear for language and, truthfully, I picked up the language pretty fast."
After all, she reasons, Ziva is versed in five languages, "and I have coaches for all of them."
Where better to get a handle on Hebrew than in the homeland? Ziva Las Vegas? No, Ziva la hummus! At the invitation of Israel's Tourist Ministry, the actress just returned from a tour of the land of milk and honey, where viewers are sweet on "NCIS."
Of Mossad and Masada … the affection is reciprocated. "I had no hesitation about going … well, maybe in the beginning," says the 28-year-old star. "But it wasn't a personal thing; it was more my family, friends thing, they're being concerned."
A Jewish state of mind? No reason for any fears, she found out quickly. "Once I was there, I felt incredibly safe, never felt threatened at all; the people are so friendly, laid back."
The lay of the land was not without its tension, sure, she said: "You feel the tension, especially at the checkpoints."
But check off safety concerns with the aid of a wonderful "Israeli Jewish guide, who helped me see what an amazing country it is."
Psst … Cote … have any secrets you picked up and want to divulge? Any missives you brought back?
Actually, says the Chilean with the letter-perfect Israeli accent, she did play the Israeli version of "I've Got a Secret." But it wasn't Garry Moore hosting the Hebrew game; it was Rafi Eitan, pensioner affairs minister who had once ministered to the nation's coup de'capture: Adolf Eichmann.
"He revealed all about the operations that involved capturing [Nazi war criminal] Eichmann," she says of the days when Eitan served as operations chief for Shin Bet, which bet its rep as the nation's security agency in the Mossad mission to snare Eichmann in Argentina.
"It was incredibly inspiring to talk to him, and learn what it was like to be involved in such an operation."
Pick up any pointers that could make this star of Ziva David a better agent?
"They're so under the radar," she says of the Mossad's sense of mystery. "I asked, 'So, where do you guys meet?' And the response: 'Everywhere!' "
Everywhere she went — nobody had to tell Tel Aviv crowds who she was or anyplace else, it turns out, as fans made no secret of their love of this dynamic character whose lifestyle is greased with alef oil.
But, wait … those yelling her name on the street? Why did they sound more Midwestern than Mideastern?
"Because they were American," she laughs of the tourists touting her fame. "My character hasn't been introduced yet in the series in Israel," where they're a season or two behind.
Talk about going undercover — but not unappreciated. Israelis can't wait to to fast-forward to the time when they'll watch the operative from their own backyard have the backs of her fellow "NCIS" team.
Not that Israel was all work and no playground; De Pablo was able to ease off her access to AK47s for an okay 60 minutes of relaxation — and more: "My sister [who was also invited on the trip] and I gave each other exfoliant massages; it really made a huge difference. And we floated in the Dead Sea."
Salt of the earth? Not that De Pablo wasn't debriefed on Israel history before she arrived to discover the catholic complexity of a place which serves as home to "a blend of all these religions in such a tiny spot."
But the one-time guest star on CBS' late "The Education of Max Bickford" found that "The Education of Cote de Pablo" was no blackboard jungle — more a sand-swept Sinai study hall.
She wasn't unprepared for life's lessons. "I already knew quite a bit about the Holocaust," discovering how history channeled so much of its miracles through the Mideast. "I learned quite a bit when I was doing research on Mossad for the series."
Tellingly, Tel Aviv took its toll on the by-the-book Ziva. Or was it Cote caught up in its carefree style? "I loved Tel Aviv, it's night life — the way they party is fantastic."
She'd move mountains to go back and revisit Masada. Or, for that matter, Yad Vashem: "I have to go back there again."
There's no backing off the fact that there's a little "NCIS" sizzle going on between De Pablo's character and that of Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, played by Michael Weatherly. Whether they will weather the longing looks from last season's finale is yet to be determined.
There's always next year … on the compound if not Jerusalem. "That last episode did deal with a lot of [Ziva's] hidden emotions when it comes to Tony."
But then, don't order up the hearts and flowers for these two yet, more apt to whisper secret codes than sweet nothings into each other's ear.
The pistol-packin' protagonists — loaded and locked … lips?
"Ziva has a very loaded relationship with men," reveals the actress. "She can be incredibly sexual, yet in control."
Unsurprisingly, "she doesn't get along with other women all that much."
In the game of real-life "Clue," Ziva doesn't give up much: "She keeps all her personal stuff buried deep."
She invests her emotions in those Israel bonds to the homeland — as well as the tie to her boss, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), with whom she shares a special link: Ziva offed his arch enemy, Ari, a turncoat Mossad agent/terrorist — who was also, incidentally, Ziva's half-brother.
Who knew that "NCIS" stood for "Nothing Comes between this Israeli and her Superior"?
"Well, she did save [Gibbs'] life by eliminating her half-brother," reasons De Pablo of their enduring dance step that is half-Hava Negillah, half-hoedown, wholly respectful. And when it comes to a choreographed career … Dancing with this star? She could wipe the floor with the competition.
De Pablo's degree from Carnegie Mellon University, the prominent Pittsburgh pit stop for brainy bravehearts on the road to serious study of the stage, is in musical theater — which explains why she was the queen of the stardust ballroom in the 2005 Broadway production of "The Mambo Kings," in which De Pablo served as a fountain of spirit and sass as Dolores Fuentes.
She already kicks up her heels — in the faces of criminals — on TV, maybe de Pablo could do the same again on stage? Is "Mossad: The Musical" the best kept secret on Broadway?
Hmm, muses the actress of Mossad's musical — if mythical — potential at this point. Revealing her not-so-secret sense of humor, she considers what kind of role she could decipher on stage.
Going undercover without an understudy? Ziva, the "Ziegfeld Girl"? "Maybe a little tap dance number with a machine gun," she ponders in a rat-a-tat tattle that is pure kibitz and kibbutz.