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By: Rob Owen
Soaring over the American heartland at 34,000 feet, Cote de Pablo studies the script for her screen test. It's 2005, and she’s on a commercial airliner en route from New York to Los Angeles for a second-round audition to join a prime-time television series. She relaxes into her seat and scans the script pages—sides as they are called in industry jargon. The character she's auditioning to play, initially described as eastern European, will be the new female lead on the CBS ensemble drama NCIS, a crime-solving show about agents for the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
At Cote de Pablo's first audition in New York, she opted for a Czech accent, figuring a specific accent would be better than making no choice. Weeks later, when her agent contacts her to say she is in the running for the role, she can't even remember trying out for the part.
That's not unusual for a busy New York actress. de Pablo is preparing for a Broadway run in The Mambo Kings, based on Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. She's already appeared in a workshop production of the musical and in a pre-Broadway run in San Francisco. While the stage show has been winding its way to Broadway—a process that often takes years—de Pablo has been juggling auditions, too. She even landed her first regular role on a prime-time series, The Jury, a legal drama from Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, producers of the acclaimed Homicide: Life on the Street. Fox executives ended up scheduling the show during the little-watched summer TV season, and it aired only briefly. That meant back to the auditions while waiting for The Mambo Kings to move forward. Welcome to the life of a working actress.
When her manager calls her on a Friday to tell her the NCIS folks might want her to have a second audition, he adds: Don't get your hopes up. Two days later, though, she gets another call. The good news: CBS will fly her to Los Angeles for a second audition. The bad news: She has to be on a flight in three hours so she can make a Monday afternoon audition at CBS's Television City headquarters in Los Angeles.
"My God, fax me those sides!" de Pablo says, feeling an adrenaline rush of anxiety, excitement, and much to consider; if she gets the NCIS job, she’ll have to bow out of The Mambo Kings.
She sits on the plane, not sleeping, not eating, just preparing. Re-reading the script, she imagines the different ways she can play the scene, the different places in the dialogue where she can put emphasis. All the while, she flies over homes where viewers are already watching NCIS, in its second season. If she gets the job, she’ll be appearing in those homes, too.
de Pablo got her first taste of performing when she took drama as an elective class in middle school. Born Maria Jose de Pablo Fernandez in Santiago, Chile (Cote is a common nickname for Maria Jose), she moved with her family to Miami at age 10 when her mother, Maria Olga Fernandez, took a job as a talk-show host with Telemundo. de Pablo says she was a shy child who didn’t speak English well. She now believes that signing up for the drama class was a subconscious effort to expand her English vocabulary and with it, unknowingly, her opportunities in America.
"I remember, I was on stage in a scene and something happened, and I called somebody 'a bastard,'" she says, "and my teacher took me offstage, gave me detention. I said to myself, 'There’s something very wrong with this class. ...People must express themselves on stage and have to be able to get it all out there.' I knew I just needed to find the proper class." That drama class did teach her something, however: "If I could make a living by singing and acting and doing musicals, that's what I wanted to do."
While de Pablo attended a performing arts high school, television producers noticed a photo of her on her mother’s desk at the TV station and hired her to co-host a magazine-style, Spanish-language TV show. During that same period, she researched the best college for her area of academic interest. She kept coming across Carnegie Mellon. It became her first choice despite the long odds of getting into the prestigious musical theater conservatory program.
"I said, 'That's my school, that's where I’m going,'" smiling at her younger self's determination. de Pablo's dreams were realized, and she earned her degree in 2000. She remembers her years in Pittsburgh as "a beautiful time," filled with exploration in a creative playground. Challenging as she says her program of study was, she remembers feeling embraced by the faculty.(Continued …)