Mark Harmon & Cote de Pablo on Ziva's 'NCIS' Return, Tiva & the Threat to Gibbs

Kate Hahn
Q&A Kevin Lynch

The last time Cote de Pablo and Mark Harmon paired up for a TV Guide Magazine cover shoot, in 2009, it ended with a food fight and her face smushed into a cake. The mood is more serious this August day when we go back to the NCIS set in Valencia, California, to mark the momentous return of her character, Ziva David.

The tough, smart Mossad operative turned NCIS agent was presumed killed by an explosion in 2016 (de Pablo had already left, in 2013). Then Ziva made a surprise appearance in May's finale to warn her former boss, Supervisory Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Harmon), that his life was in danger.

With shooting for Season 17 under way, Harmon sports a nasty stage-makeup scratch on his forehead, while de Pablo is on a closed set to do a fight scene (her character is a martial arts expert). Together for our photographer later — and minus any visible signs of an altercation — they have the same easy rapport we see onscreen. He whispers in her ear, she laughs and leans her head on his shoulder. ("I don't think we'd be here if we weren't [friends off camera]," she notes.)

Afterward, we sit down with the costars to talk about the staggeringly popular drama's upcoming season and how it feels to be reunited. 

In the trailer, Ziva mentions a woman named Sahar (Mouzam Makkar) who wants her dead and is now after Gibbs. Just how dangerous will it get? 

Mark Harmon: The threat is real.

Cote de Pablo: We are very much in danger. The only way to justify Ziva [possibly] breaking cover and jeopardizing herself and the people at NCIS was to make the threat absolutely real. She lost her father [Mossad director Eli David, killed in Season 10], so she feels responsible for her father figure, Gibbs, and has to save him. She's also trying to keep her daughter a secret and safe from the people who are trying to get to Gibbs and to her. [Tali has been living in Paris with her former NCIS agent father, Tony DiNozzo, played by Michael Weatherly.]

(Cliff Lipson/CBS)

Fans just love Tony and Ziva — or "Tiva." Any chance we'll see Tony again?

Harmon: [Laughs] Maybe. Michael is a little busy at the moment.

De Pablo: He's shooting a procedural [Bull]. I don't think Ziva and Tony have seen each other or communicated in a long time. Tali was delivered to him [by Mossad], and that was the end of it. Don't ask any questions, dot-dot-dot, to be continued.

Based on what we've seen on set today, is it safe to say the premiere is pretty action-packed? 

Harmon: We and other cast members are in scuffles. It's very active. Ziva and Gibbs have different ideas for how to go from point A to point B. The driving is contested. 

See Ziva Reunite With McGee in 'NCIS' Episode 2 Sneak Peek (PHOTOS)

See Ziva Reunite With McGee in 'NCIS' Episode 2 Sneak Peek (PHOTOS)

Plus, in Cote de Pablo's second episode of the season, she meets Bishop and Torres.

De Pablo: Gibbs takes the keys. [Laughs] In the fight sequences, I was a little rusty, but you start working on something and go, "Oh, my God, that's right. I really like this." The choreography comes back into your body incredibly quickly. It's fun! 

With Ziva taking the lead because of her intel, are their typical father-daughter roles reversed?

De Pablo: It's not a given that they're going to be exactly who they were. We have different ideas pretty much the entire episode. Ziva is used to working by herself, and all of a sudden she's trying to tell Gibbs what to do. They haven't seen each other for a long time and have to find trust again. 

(Erik Voake/CBS)

Harmon: Cote in some ways plays a very different character. Ziva is older, more experienced. She's been on her own for a long time. Gibbs is not accustomed to change, and they already threw a lot of change at him last season. 

As actors, did you experience the same type of readjustment?  

De Pablo: It's like time never passed. We get right into the groove. It's very easy to look at Mark and understand emotionally where you're going in a scene. Gibbs and Ziva are on edge and the stakes are very high, so they're in combustible situations. Mark and I play with that: What am I calling you on? How are you going to react to me? Are we going to go head-to-head? Mark always helps me react. 

8 'NCIS' Episodes to Rewatch Before Ziva's Season 17 Return (PHOTOS)

8 'NCIS' Episodes to Rewatch Before Ziva's Season 17 Return (PHOTOS)

These episodes include vital information or speak to Ziva's character and her bond with the team (and especially Gibbs).

Speaking of your working relationship, Gibbs whispered something to Ziva in Season 7 when she returned after a traumatic departure. Fans have always wondered: What did he say?

Harmon: You're not getting this from me. It's not so much a secret but an actor thing.

De Pablo: Mark does that all the time. He'll whisper in your ear right before a take or talk to you about stuff you don't want to talk about. And then afterward he'll go, "Oh, by the way, I was just doing that so we can get a take." I'm like, "Oh, you little—"

Harmon: When you know people well and you know how they work, it comes from respect. It's not about manipulation. I know how she rolls. And she knows me the same way.  

(Michael Yarish/CBS)

Do you remember your first day together on set in Season 3?

Harmon: I remember so clearly when Cote first got here. We were working long hours. She just brought it — she was all in. The cargo pants, the headband, the —

De Pablo: — combat boots! My first year [2005], I was a little discombobulated. I was so new. Mark knew instantly [when a scene was working]. He'd say, "Oh, this is cool. Let's grab this."

11 Best Tony & Ziva Episodes of 'NCIS' (PHOTOS)

11 Best Tony & Ziva Episodes of 'NCIS' (PHOTOS)

Celebrate Cote de Pablo's return by looking back on these memorable Tiva moments.

You've shared many memorable scenes. When Ziva showed up at the top of Gibbs' basement stairs, it echoed a dramatic one from Season 3. She stood in the same spot and saved Gibbs' life by killing her half brother, Ari Haswari, a Mossad double agent and terrorist who was about to shoot. Is this new danger related to the past?

De Pablo: Ari's always involved. There's something that has to do with him and some loose ends still lingering. You see some of Ziva's past come back — flashbacks and hints of things that have marked her [in the years she's been gone].

Harmon: And [we'll see] other characters you've met in both Gibbs' and Ziva's lives.

How does the rest of the NCIS team react to the stunning news that Ziva is back?

Harmon: For the premiere, we've been isolated in some ways. We've seen a lot of each other. 

(Michael Yarish/CBS)

De Pablo: Episode 2, there is more interaction — mostly with McGee [Sean Murray's special agent] and a little with [NCIS medical examiner turned historian] Ducky [David McCallum].

NCIS, Season 17 Premiere, Tuesday, September 24, 8/7c, CBS

This is an abbreviated version of TV Guide Magazine's latest cover story. For more, pick up the issue, on newsstands Thursday, September 12.