Simple and spontaneous , hard to believe that this 1.70 meters tall woman with thick eyebrows, deep black eyes and an infectious laugh is the most successful Chilean actress in Hollywood. A few days ago she was in our country to accompany the mexican Patricia Riggen, the director of the film The 33 (based on the dramatic experience of the miners of Atacama) to present exclusively to them the finished film, with Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche as protagonists, and in which María José de Pablo (35 ) will have the role of Jessica Vega , the wife of trapped miner Alex Vega (Mario Casas) , who took charge of organizing the camp Hope above ground. Cote also is the voice of the song “Gracias a la Vida” that accompanied the production; a tribute to Violeta Parra.
“It was very emotional,” she says of the meeting with the 27 miners who came to the meeting. “They had not seen the finished film, they were nervous, they didn’t know what they would find. Also, it meant to relive that experience that was so intense, physically and spiritually. Many were excited, others stood and let; there were also those that contained themselves. Remember they are very “macho” men…” says the actress about this experience with The 33 that is not only professionally for the first time to Chile, but is also an opportunity to break into Hollywood film after eight years of a successful career on American television as the Israeli agent Ziva David on the series NCIS. The show is watched by twenty million viewers each week, and its character not only made Cote a millionaire (she ended up earning $ 120,000 per episode), but also catapulted her to fame, in 2011 becoming the second most popular actress on TV according to a study by Q Score. That same year, she also won the Alma prize in the category “favorite actress” in a dramatic role.
It is a brilliant end to a story marked by the effort and perseverance that began at age 10 when Cote went to live in Miami with her parents—businessman Francisco de Pablo, the presenter of the Festival de Viña, and Maria Olga Fernandez, who later would separate—and her younger siblings, Pancho (a DJ) and Andrea (a designer), who now live in Miami and Los Angeles.
For Cote, it was a change of country and also of life; a jump from the conservative Catholic environment that was the Villa Maria to finish at New World High School, with an education very similar to that of the series Fama, complete with actors, musicians, dancers—very hip! There, she not only left behind prejudice, limits, and intolerance, but also gave free rein to her artistic side to make way for the woman she is today: free, direct, uninhibited, and passionate. “That was my first encounter with my tribe, with people who spoke my language ,” recalls the actress who went there for an acting workshop. She later went on to refine her skills at the school of the arts at the University of Carnegie Mellon, graduating in Theatre and Musical Theatre.
At 18, with a TV program under her belt, she left to try her luck in New York. She settled in Brooklyn, in a tiny apartment in a modest neighborhood. While waiting for her big break, she worked for years as a waitress in Indian and Italian restaurants, recorded commercials, participated in the series The Jury and the musical Mambo Kings, and finally touched the sky with NCIS as Ziva David helped her achieve all of the accolades, fame, and money that an actor could dream for… However, after eight years, in 2013 she decided to end her participation in the series, leaving millions of viewers affected by her departure with no real explanation, and only now, Cote it is ready to clarify . “Yes, it was a dream I lived for eight years; I did, I reached certain goals and and certain places… But at some point you have to ask yourself, ‘Does this make me happy?’ Happiness is tied not only to economic success; It is broader, related to strong emotional processes that you must experience in order to grow. I put together several things, many personal. It was what had to happen; in the last minute of negotiations it was all very clear to me, and it was easy to leave TV ”.
What answer did you find when you asked yourself if you were happy?
That I was missing things live. I spent eight years on a set, from twelve to seventeen hours a day , Monday through Friday. There was no time to process life, to understand what happened with my partner, if he was happy, why I missed my parents so much and why after recording a scene I felt low, like I was running on empty. In the world of success, when you’re at the top you can unbalance everything, but many realize too late, when the costs are high. For me, my health, my family, and my emotional stability are essential. It was a moment of questions and decisions, asking whether I was willing to work two more years to gain everything I could. The most important thing was to content myself with the determination it would take…
Do you regret it?
-I don’t have any regrets. The first gift was wondering what I would do, and the first thing was to travel. I went to the Amazon (Ecuador), I went to the rivers, talked with the natives, I reconnected with nature. I felt like I was in Avatar! Wonderful, pure green trees. Upon my return to New York where everything is gray, I began to think, to wonder what was happening in my life, what my heart wanted. Exactly the first of January of 2014 I got the offer to work on The 33. It was special because four months before I had written several times: ‘I want to work on a film outside the country, in a secondary role, with people I admire; to spend a summer in Chile and be with my grandfather on his birthday.’ The most amazing thing was that we finished recording on March 13 , the day before his birthday. I could not believe it—everything fell into place!
What have you gained with this new life?
Time… The soul speaks. It is important to let go of that little voice that is logic, that always thinks of ambition, to think: ‘how could I not take it, these opportunities don’t come twice.’ It is the brain thinking, because a child who is more heart will always say, ‘I don’t want to do this because I want to play.’ My inner child was not happy with that logic part, and I can be very rational, however, I felt that I had already paid my debt, and that I had to make that child happy! I wanted to travel, to play, to be daring—and this film in Chile had a lot of this—to reconnect myself with laughter, with actors, meet new people, build strong emotional connections. Two months in the desert with Gabriel (Byrne ), Juliette ( Binoche ), Rodrigo ( Santoro ), Kate ( the Castle ), Patricia ( Riggen ) gave us all space for deep refletion. And many of these emotional processes can be felt in the film.
Why do you think they called you for the 33?
I don’t know, I still think that this came from “above”. These are things of fate, of being in a place for which they give certain connections and fit together the pieces. I had to stay in Chile, to be part of this cast. And I took the plunge without knowing the character would grow. I had to trust , and that had a lot to do Patricia Riggen. I was in Costa Rica when she called to invite me to participate , with a bad phone connection; in the end it was a monologue on her part to tell me that she was working with the miners in Colombia and to convince me to participate. She still hadn’t thought about the second part of the film that was the surface, the women and families.
How is your role as Jessica Vega?
My character unites the history of two or three wives of miners, many of whom we knew and acted as extras. They were always around, they were guides, a very strong emotional guideline from whom we took lessons. Professionally and emotionally, it was very good to be near and to share with them. It came from a world of men it was great to meet with peers. We connect ourselves in a different way, emotionally we understand each other immediately. Everyone laughed, cried, shared their experiences. I was struck by their sweetness , always smiling. Despite the unbearable heat of the desert, I never heard a complaint; they were brave, dedicated, very affectionate. I am also very much of touch, of emotion, which in America is strange.
Although she feels like a world citizen, Maria Jose still has a lot of Chile. “I am still maintaining a conservative structure in terms of my relationships. Also, I am very oriented to my friends, I love to receive them and sit and talk . In everything else, I am free! I’ve always said, I am the American dream. I came to America at age 10 with huge ideas, I never closed the doors, and although I hesitated at times, my parents and family always supported me. They never told me, “No, not this world!” ; on the contrary, ‘Cote, dream big!’, that anything is possible.
They didn’t give you a ceiling.
Never. In America you can achieve what you want. I didn’t enter the business because of my contacts. As an immigrant, I had no ties or connections , and to find a place of your own, it gives you freedom and incredible power. As nobody knows you, you can reinvent yourself 500 thousand times, and it doesn’t matter! It is a wonderful thing and a reality that you can do anywhere, but it must start on your own. I could have been loaded with tons of things that I would bring from Chile.
What was the hardest ?
What I thought was the hardest, I now remember as the most wonderful time. When I didn’t work, I lived in a studio in one of the worst neighborhoods in Brooklyn, I woke up, did yoga, went to auditions, worked as a waitress, and it was not what I wanted. Then came a stroke of luck, and I did not stop for ten years, ten years that I lost. Now, I think about when I was super happy, and I think about when I lived in Brooklyn, in that small apartment and had time to do yoga. Nobody owned me or my time.
Cote said that in her success as a child made her methodical and disciplined.“If I had a presentation or something, I woke up an hour and a half earlier stressed, anxious, and didn’t act like a normal girl,” she recalls.
Newly single after years in a relationship with the Ecuadorian actor Diego Serrano (he has participated in American telenovelas and the movie The 24 Hour Woman) with whom she shared a home in Los Angeles, the actress travels to Chile whenever she can and takes refuge in the house her family has in Zapallar, although today only her mother lives there. She says that with time, she started to rid herself of the prejudices of our own idiosyncracies, to reach that freedom that she speaks of today. “When you realize that which you carry does not matter to you, you are going to let it go. For that you must be aware of it. One of our typical prejudices is “it’s what people say.” I have a big, conservative family, but they know I’m more liberal and we want the same things, despite our differences.
When you come to Chile, how do you see the country?
There are certain things and people that do not change, and you want them as they are. They maintain that which is familiar, which I love, Sunday lunches that that I do not see so much in the US, where I live a more solitary life; that’s what I miss. I am struck by Santiago, and also how it has grown, the number of buildings and constructions on these wonderful houses in neighborhoods like Providencia, awful!
How does family work with your parents and siblings scattered around the world?
Difficult. All of us are going on a trip to Italy. We rented a lovely home. We do family to the extent that we can.
And society, is it very different?
Yes, freer, less prejudice to speak the truth. Especially the young, and it is because they are open to other things today.
Did it hurt your ego be so successful and so little known inside your country?
No, and I understand. I was very focused on my work, I had no time to come to Chile, not even go to parties. I could not leave my work. My only free time was two weeks in December, and started coming to our house on the beach. I liked that here they didn’t know me, I could be left in peace, although I don’t deny that I love when someone approaches me and says, ’ You’re the actress that is doing things in Hollywood, my children are fans of your series.’ This makes me proud! It is different when an American says this than someone from Santiago. In the United States also I had a quiet home life, if I could skip the parties and red carpets , I jumped at it! I was tired, with a tough schedule. I gave myself over to the difficulty, there was no room for anything else.
Now with The 33 , do you aim to break into Hollywood film?
I have big dreams, and I’m willing to accept whatever comes on stage, screen , tv. That which is creative motivates me, any character that moves me. Although after such a long television contract, I confess that I am really attracted to film, because they are stories told with maximum intensity but in a short time. And that, at this point, is very attractive.
Are you interested in Chilean cinema?
I’ve always said that the doors are open for any market when the work is creative and with a seductive story. Currently Chilean cinema is going up, with internationally recognized people. There is so much talent here, it’s things like this that open it a little more in order for this industry to skyrocket.
With which Chileans would you like to work ?
There are many entertaining people, with Pablo Larrain would be fantastic, Matías Bice, Matias Lira just released Karadima—all I want is to see it! I am connected to what happens in the national industry, observing who is doing good things. I’m curious.
What would be willing to do to get a role?
Do you mean like plastic surgery?
Are you crazy?Noo, I love how I am!
What are your limits?
I would never get an operation to get a role, if they don’t give it to me for talent, I am not interested. And I don’t know anyone from my university, friends, or circles that would do this kind of thing. To transform ourselves by gaining or losing weight, yes, this is within that which we have to do. In fact, in The 33 I have gained weight, but to get an operation for a character? Many do it; I don’t understand it.
Chilean television is at least very demanding with women, they demand they stay young and wonderful.
In issues of physical alterations, surgery is very important for women to learn to say no to. We have the power to change the perception toward us. And if there is no age on TV, it would be a crime, because TV must reflect a world that is more diverse than women between 25 and 40. If there is Barbara Walters, why must the great journalists and hosts need to come packaged in a 30-year-old body? It is unfair. In North America and other countries, the figures of TV stand for what they do, not how they look. In addition, today humans live longer, how can that not be reflected on the screen!? In the US you see beauty campaigns with Diane Keaton and others 60, 70, and it is because they realized that there is a market with great purchasing power. Not seeing them does not mean they cease to exist. And those in charge of programs and soap operas should have this strong female presence because we are living longer, getting better and more magnificent. If we are aware of this and we make a decision, we can transform public consciences and generate great changes.
Apparently you are passionate about this subject.
I am optimistic, and I insist, we have the power to change the world. There are many women who make decisions based on if equal treatment doesn’t exist—I’m not interested! These large differences given to us in the Arab and African world, for example, can be changed in a generation. How? mothers should transform their thinking , and raise their children so that they respect and look at each other as equal. They have this incredible power when raising their children.
And are you going to be a mother?
The children will come when they are ment to come. It is a pending design. I know what it is to belong to a family, but I have to have all of the pieces and the right person. Meanwhile, I wait. Like I said, there are things that are of destiny, in which certain forces come together and assemble the pieces.