'NCIS' Season 17: Cote de Pablo Opens Up About Playing Ziva Again After Five-Year Absence (Exclusive)

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When Cote de Pablo left NCIS more than five years ago, any chance for her beloved character, Special Agent Ziva David, to reappear seemed slim to none. But the May finale changed what was possible when de Pablo unexpectedly returned to warn Mark Harmon's Jethro Gibbs that his life is in jeopardy. As NCIS gears up for its 17th season, which begins Tuesday, the decision to revisit Ziva was something de Pablo had a lot of discussions over. "There was obviously a decision," the 39-year-old actress tells ET ahead of the premiere. "It's always, 'Would you want to?' And my decision was made fairly quickly." 

In the season opener, titled "Out of the Darkness," Ziva and Gibbs are forced to deal with life-and-death stakes against the backdrop of the simple fact that Ziva was once presumed dead. Their tense reunion prompts Gibbs to question why she remained underground for the past few years while allowing those in her inner circle to believe she had been killed in a mortar attack. De Pablo is currently set to appear in five episodes.

"The story needed to be something that merited the return of this character and wasn't just a cheap publicity shot," executive producer Steven D. Binder told ET. "We, as a staff, spent quite a bit of time trying to find a story that fit. We wanted it to be full. We wanted to use the show's DNA, something that touched on Cote's entire run on the show -- from the circumstances of her first arriving to things that happened with the character. We wanted to use that as the raw material. We had one final meeting with Cote where we discussed these things and whether it was something that she was interested in, and you know the answer to that."

Before de Pablo kicks off her extended arc, ET spoke with the actress about returning to her roots after a five-year absence, the creative conversations she had with producers that led her to say yes and why she continues to be "fascinated" by Ziva after all these years.

ET: It was a treat seeing you come back to the NCIS family. How much back and forth did you have about returning to the show after five years away?

Cote de Pablo: Yes, there was obviously a decision. It's always, would you want to? And my decision was made fairly quickly. Once we started talking about the possibility of coming back and once the showrunners put me in touch with Gina Monreal, who is one of the writers and was in charge of writing the introduction of the character back into the world of NCIS, we started talking about what the character has been through these past couple of years. How could we possibly bring her back? What would be complex and riveting? What do you think has happened to her? What do you think not seeing her daughter has done to her? All of these very intricate emotional questions -- and also philosophical questions -- about life. 

Gina is very easy to talk to, and she is very invested in the character. She's also a woman and a mother. She's a very strong writer and a wonderful person with a huge heart, so I knew I would be well taken care of and I knew that the character would be respected and loved. She did a terrific introductory episode and I was really excited to read it and I was really excited to shoot it.

NCIS
CBS

What was vital for you creatively for Ziva's story where you felt personally fulfilled? Was there an instance where you said, "These are the things I would like to explore for Ziva"?

We started our conversation with, "Where do we think Ziva's been?" And I said, "Well, we know one thing. No one knows where she's been and everyone thinks she's dead." Based on the fact that these two things were put on the table, we came to the conclusion that she has been in an undercover operation and that she's been working undercover to protect her family. Meaning, if no one knows she is alive and if she has to work for this undercover operation -- we don't know yet for who -- by staying undercover, she's protecting those she loves. Then whatever would make her break that operation, would have to be a legitimately important thing.

There were three people, Gina and I came to the conclusion, that would actually make her break any kind of an operation, and that's Tony DiNozzo, Tali and Gibbs -- the man that she loves, her daughter and her father figure. Based on these three characters, we came to the conclusion that her daughter would be No. 1, and then, of course, Tony and Gibbs. 

With those conversations, how did you land on Ziva and Gibbs' storyline that kicks off the season?

The only one who was really available to have a compelling story arc with was Mark Harmon, Gibbs. And so I said, "Let's bring her back because Gibbs is in potential danger," and I think it's a legitimate reason to break any kind of an operation and to justify potentially putting other people in danger. People who have maybe helped her out through these five years and people that she's been potentially working with undercover. All of these things, you'll understand as the episodes unfold. 

Those were the main things. Give them a reason to come back and give Ziva a legitimate, important reason to come back and make those stakes as high as possible, and by as high as possible, I do mean life or death, because I think we are dealing with that kind of a situation. No one leaves an undercover operation for just a simple reason. If that's respected, then you're opening up a chapter that could potentially be compelling, complex, certainly interesting, at times entertaining, but all of it playing simultaneously, which I think is what people are invested in when they watch NCIS and certainly when they watch these characters.

You mentioned the life-and-death stakes Ziva and Gibbs are faced with. How different is their relationship now versus what it was before?

These are two people who obviously have loved each other very much. They're family, but they haven't seen each other or heard from each other in a long time. So you get to put these two people who have this past together in a potentially dangerous situation where they're both trying to help each other. And they don't really have time to cover five years of experience of life.

It makes for a rather intricate and at times, messy communication. They're trying desperately to understand what each of them has gone through and the choices that they've made, but they have few moments where they're left alone, where there's no danger lurking. It's an interesting thing. It's basically two people trying to communicate, trying to find each other through what seems to be many complicated years of absence. Many unanswered questions. The cool thing is that it's not resolved and it's not tied up with a pretty bow.

There is an added layer of tension because they've been away from each other all these years. You run the gamut of emotions, from anger and sadness to frustration. Was that something you were looking forward to play with?

I was certainly excited to play with that and that was something that I really wanted to explore with the character. When Mark and I talked about this, we were both very much on the same page as to their struggle to try to understand each other. Their struggle to try to feel like they had each other's trust again. That needs to be earned along the way. That's not something that you hand over quickly or just because "Oh, well, we were this five years ago. Let's go back to that." Life has happened. Things have happened. Things have shifted us into a new version of ourselves. And that in itself is something that needs to be explored from a human aspect. It makes it interesting for an actor, certainly an actor who hasn't revisited this character for five years and for an actor who's been there the entire time.

That part of it was really comforting and wonderful. To work with Mark in that way is great because we worked so many years together and we worked very well [together]. At this point, we can just trust each other. We show up, we have ideas, but we don't push each other to do something that the other one's not comfortable with. We each do what we believe is the integrity of the character, and we respect each other in our version of our truth. And that I think is a luxury.

In addition to Gibbs, there are also other reunions between Ziva and other characters, most notably McGee (Sean Murray). What can you tease?

I remember talking to the writers and I said, "Whatever you do, do not throw her into potential situations with other characters too soon because if you need for her to come in and take care of whatever the danger is with Gibbs, then make that relevant and make that be the main center of the storyline." However, you have to address the fact that I am invited into a world which now has old characters and some new characters. So I will meet them. How that unfolds is a surprise. All I can say is that there is a meeting between Ziva and McGee, and there is a really sweet scene between the two of them. Obviously they're both working, but it does happen and it was beautiful.

NCIS: Sean Murray and Cote de Pablo
CBS

Was there a bit of a learning curve settling back into Ziva's shoes?

It's funny. I know this character so well and I've loved this character, shaped this character with such passion that when we started talking about bringing the character back, I got really excited about the idea of potentially going back to the show. The moment I went back on set, I felt like I had revisited so much of the character already, that it felt like slipping into those comfortable shoes right back with the family. Right back where I left off. Our job was to justify these past five years and make that a compelling inner monologue for the character, so that you could justify her actions presently. Like I said, it was really fun and completely comfortable. The moment I started engaging as Ziva with Gibbs, it felt like, "Great, here we are again. I know how to do this." 

Since you left in 2013, Ziva's presence has been felt throughout the undercurrent of the series. Has that been surreal to know that your character made such an impact?  

I always was fascinated by her. I thought she was funny. I thought there was something about her that at times was kind of sexy, but I liked the fact that she never sacrificed the integrity of her work for any of those other things. She wasn't funny for the sake of being funny. She wasn't sexy for the sake of being sexy. The situations and the circumstances dictated who she was and who she became along the way. 

There were years where she was more serious. Years where she was more flirty. Years where she was more mysterious. Years when she was struggling emotionally with deep things, with her father and all of these conflicts. What I always wanted -- and it wasn't clear to me while I was doing the show -- but as the show progressed and as the years went by, women would come up to me and they would say, "I really love this character because she's strong and she doesn't jeopardize herself in situations." She's very strong and she's courageous, but she fights for what she believes in.

At a certain point I realized, "Wow, this is kind of neat." Certain people are responding to something that is happening very organically here and that was a fascinating journey for me. In many ways, I felt compelled to protect that and hold that in a dear place. I think, yes, I think you'll see a lot of things in Ziva that are very old, and a couple of things that obviously are new.

In regard to the Ziva and Tony of it all, is there a desire you have to share one last scene with Michael Weatherly again?

When Michael and I talk, and we talk very often, we laugh and we say, "Oh my god, do you think these characters will ever see each other again?" And the answer is always, yes, we're just wondering where and when. But these are questions you have to ask the writers. You have to ask Michael. It's not just a Cote question, because most of these decisions are not made by me. We're waiting for the proper platform and a nice storyline, and I'm crossing my fingers it happens. We're both open to it and we'll see what happens. It's a matter of schedules and many factors; many things have to be factored in for that equation to actually become real.

Could this open up the door for a more regular presence on NCIS, or are you content with these five episodes?

These five episodes will answer a lot of those questions. It's not something that we've discussed and let's leave it at that, because who knows what the world has in store. 

NCIS returns Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

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