Not quite sure how to play it due to inexperience, shyness and the unnerving feeling of being kissed in front of the camera and crew, she quickly reaches for something to help prepare her for the scene. What’s a girl to do? “I sprayed my mouth with Binaca,” says Marya.
It’s 1967, and Marya, then 22, is playing the role of Billie-Jo Hump, a beautiful Native American girl who is Joe’s (Elvis Presley) love interest. Elvis, who was well on his way to establishing himself as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, is playing lead in the movie, “Stay Away Joe.”
“When it was time to do the scene, Elvis took my hand and asked, ‘Are you ready?' and I said, ‘yes,' so he kissed me, but I must have used too much mouth spray because he threw his head back and screamed out, ‘This girl swallowed some disinfectant!' We all laughed and started all over again. It took eight takes to get the shot right.”
Whether it required eight takes to get that perfect shot or he was teasing his young co-actress, when asked what it was like to work with him, Marya replied, “Elvis was the most courteous actor I have ever worked with. He would say, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am’ and he was also very kind. He had fun on the set and was like a kid at times. He would play pranks on people, including me, and one time he hid firecrackers under my seat so when I sat down it went off. It was all in good fun.”
Born in Iloilo, a province of the Philippines, to an Ilocano mother and an American father of Scottish, German and French extraction, Marya Coburn (Marya Christen is her stage name) is the first and only Philippine-born actress who worked with legends such as Elivis Presley, Frank Sinatra, John Voight, Yul Brynner, Bob Fosse, Robert Wagner, to name a few. She is a singer, actress and dancer whose work includes appearances on mainstream American television shows, movies and Broadway musical productions.
Marya owes her entertainment success to her unique upbringing and free-spirited nature. She spent her early grade school years in Quezon City’s St. Paul’s College. The rest were spent abroad in a private school in Switzerland and, ultimately, in New York City where she joined her mother, who at the time was earning two graduate degrees at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Having acquired four languages, she made sure that her daughter remained connected to her roots by speaking Tagalog and Ilocano to her. Today Marya is still fluent in both languages.
Marya’s mother immersed her daughter in acting and dancing lessons with the intention of preparing her for an eventual social debut in Manila. She had hopes of her daughter becoming a doctor, but Marya had other plans for herself. Bit by the acting bug, Marya followed her own passion and continued to pursue training at prestigious schools in Manhattan including the School of the Performing Arts, which subsequently earned her a scholarship to The Juilliard School.
Opportunities too tempting to turn down kept her from completing her studies and instead she accepted roles with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet to dance in “Les Sylphides” with the late famed choreographer, Antony Tudor, and on Broadway in Bob Fosse’s, “Sweet Charity.” Serendipity and luck would take her to Los Angeles for her first movie role in “Stay Away Joe.”
More movie roles followed, including “Dirty Dingus Magee,” with Frank Sinatra and George Kennedy, “The All American Boy’” with Jon Voight and “April Fools” with Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve. Her television credits include parts on “Bonanza, ” “Wild Wild West, ” “Medical Center, ” “It Takes a Thief, ” “Love American Style” to name a few.
Her advice to young actors trying to break out in Hollywood:
“Be prepared! Study acting in an accredited school like Stella Adler School, Neighborhood Playhouse, Actors Studio, or ask other actors how they prepared themselves. Looks help but talent and skills win out in the end. Study voice and diction, projections, Shakespeare, prepare monologues, improvisation, dance and maybe even sing if you want to get on Broadway. Practice, practice, practice. I know that Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, all skilled actors practiced together once a week when they were in the same town. Study psychology to help you understand yourself and the characters you are to portray. Ask yourself where you find those qualities or traits in yourself and incorporate it with the character.”
She adds, “It’s also very important to be in a positive state of mind by exercising at least three times a week—I did it every day. Join a gym, play sports, practice yoga to keep your body in shape as well as your mind.”
On the talent coming out of the Philippines, “Our country has so many gifted singers and performers and I’d like to see more of our films qualify to compete in film festivals like the ones in Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, etc.”
Marya gave up her career in Hollywood when she moved back to New York and married a plastic surgeon. She helped build her husband’s medical practice at the onset of their 20-year marriage. Today, she lives in an elegant northern New Jersey suburb and cares for her 93-year-old mother who resides with her.
Not far from the lights and lure of the city, she continues to be a patron of the arts, supporting productions including a recent cabaret show, “On Kentucky Avenue,” and is working on projects of her own where she will perform again.
“I’m slowly working my way out of retirement,” she explains, “You know the saying, ‘Once in show business, always in show business!'”
- Billie-Jo Hump, Stay Away, Joe (1968), starring Elvis Presley
- China Poppy, Dirty Dingus Magee (1970), starring Frank Sinatra
- The All American Boy (1973) - starring Jon Voight
- April Fools - (1969) starring Jack Lemmon, Catherine Deneuve
- Anna and the King - Yul Brynner
- It Takes a Thief
- Love American Style
- Medical Center
- Wild, Wild West
- Sweet Charity, Broadway, NY
- Les Sylphides at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, NY
- Flower Drum Song, Royal Alexander Theatre, Toronto
Movie and TV Clips
- Stay Away Joe, 1968 Starring Elvis Presley, directed by Peter Tewkesbury
- Dirty Dingus Magee (1970)
Imelda Oppenheim is an ACE Certified Personal Fitness Trainer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.