Playing Marilyn Monroe Taught Actress Kelli Garner to Love Her Curves

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Photography by Olivia Malone
Styling by Mary Fellowes
Hair by Kylee Heath
Makeup by Kindra Mann
Manicure by Stephanie Stone
Location Avalon Hotel Beverly Hills

“I just tricked myself into believing that I could do it, and went for it,” says Kelli Garner of her decision to tackle the role of Marilyn Monroe in Lifetime’s upcoming feature The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, which premieres May 30 (just two days shy of the glamorous late star’s 89th birthday). “Apparently we shot a miniseries that is four hours long, but I don’t remember any of it. It was the biggest, wildest blur of my career — more work that I’ve ever been thrown, but it was so much fun.”

While doing press for the series, Garner hasn’t exactly been mum in regards to her hesitation to take on Hollywood’s most popular leading lady. “I think I put so much pressure on myself to play Marilyn Monroe that I was afraid that I was going to get in my way of telling a real woman’s story,” she explains. “She’s so omnipresent still.” The Aviator actress even goes so far as to admit doubting whether she could pull off even a physical resemblance to the iconic actress. But once Susan Sarandon signed on to star opposite the lead as Norma Jeane’s mother, Gladys Baker, Garner decided to brave it out. “The show revolves around that relationship, or lack of relationship. And once Susan was linked to this, everything became more exciting because she’s one of my favorites,” Garner explains.

Thus began Garner’s transformation from strawberry blond starlet to voluptuous platinum blond bombshell. To pull off the look, she spent an average of two and a half hours a day getting ready to appear on screen as Monroe. “Our assistant director realized that when it was all said and done, I would have spent an allotted total of eight days of the 42-shooting-day schedule in hair and makeup and wardrobe,” says Garner. “I’m kind of a tomboy, too, so it was funny!”

The film involved 99 costume changes and often seven different outfits and three separate wigs per day of shooting. “It was the most exhausting fitting of my life,” admits Garner. “The wardrobe department had also practically wallpapered every blank square inch of the fitting area walls with a Marilyn photo. So it was a week of just pure intimidation.” Part of the physicality of the role involved morphing Garner’s body into a replica of Monroe’s prized figure. “I play her from like 15 to 36, so you want to see that evolution as a woman,” explains Garner. To take the actress through 21 years of Monroe’s life, costume designer Gersha Phillips had to manipulate Garner’s body by raising her waist, padding her hips, and lessening her bust line. “In some of the scenes, we had to hide my breasts a little as I’m a little more two-some than she was,” reveals Garner.

Then there was the process of pulling off the skintight look that was prominent during Hollywood’s early era when Monroe’s personal costume designer, William Travilla, used to actually sew the actress into her gowns. “Gersha kept things really, really tight,” says Garner, who mentions that her body didn’t always cooperate on set. “When you shoot over a course of two months, as a woman your body fluctuates. And sometimes Gersha would take something in so tight and be like, This would be great for Friday, and it would be Wednesday. Then come Friday, I don’t know what happened, but I couldn’t get anywhere in it,” she says. “It was just a dance of, is it gonna fit? Is it gonna zip up? Are we going to have to only shoot it from the front?”

Working so closely with Phillips not only transformed Garner’s look on set but also changed her real-life fashion mentality. The typical T-shirt/boyfriend-jeans-wearing tomboy received a wealth of wardrobe tips from the pro on how to take her figure to the next level. “Gersha taught me a really beautiful way to dress for my figure. I’m tinier than Marilyn was, but I still have some curves that I didn’t know what to do with,” Garner explains. For instance, Phillips introduced her to high-waisted pedal pusher slacks and has also encouraged her to dress to emphasize her neck versus showy cleavage. “Now that I’ve come back home from shooting, I’ve realized my closet is a shame,” says the actress, with a laugh. “I need a complete overhaul.”

The process of transforming Garner’s face was also a major endeavor; it involved pounds of makeup and various tricks of the trade. “I didn’t have eyebrows at all when I shot,” cites Garner, as an example. “The makeup artist had plucked them so thin to raise my eyelid, as Marilyn is all eyelid,” she adds. “The amount of makeup I had on was hilarious.”

Though tedious, physically transforming Garner into Monroe was what really prepped her with the confidence she needed to bring the role to life. “The wigs were so beautiful, the makeup artists were so talented that I was like, ‘OK. I don’t look like an idiot,’ so now I could go and have more confidence behind me to just perform,” she says. Garner relished the opportunity to showcase more of the troubled star than the adored diva. “I got to play her sitting in a therapy session throughout the whole miniseries, which I found so fascinating,” she says. To prep, Garner read the book the script was derived from and also watched every one of Monroe’s movies. “The Misfits was my favorite way to get into that more cerebral, melancholic, confused side of Marilyn. Arthur Miller wrote a lot of her troubles onscreen. It was a fascinating film to watch over and over again.”

Though she faced her share of pressure associated with portraying Monroe, one thing Garner was relaxed about was getting her body into shape prior to shooting. “I didn’t diet for Marilyn,” she says. “I was afraid to be too skinny, because they were filming for that kind of 1940s/’50s figure. I was trying to stay soft to get that body type.” As a result of the experience, Garner found that portraying Monroe armed her with a new outlook on her own body image. “I would see Marilyn in a little bathing suit or jeans, and she would be laughing and she’d have a full belly coming over her jeans, which is so beautiful,” she says. “If that is something that happened to me, Kelli, I’d be mortified. With our standards of beauty now, it’s like, ‘Oh you can’t have those rolls there.’ But I think Marilyn is one of the most stunning women who has every been around, and she was never in perfect shape.” One of the things that really drove this home for Garner was discovering an advertisement for weight enhancement pills while flipping through 1950s magazines that were lying around the set. “These ads said, ‘Are your legs too skinny? Are you not filling out that dress?” she says. “Beauty was such a different and more natural thing back then. I was shocked. Like, wow — they are actually selling pills to women if they want to have a little more volume,” says Garner.

Garner’s post-Monroe self is now angered by the stick-thin models that grace mainstream advertisements. “I just want girls to love food and love eating and be OK with who they are. Playing Marilyn taught me that as well. Superskinny is not attractive,” she says. The recent revelation has inspired Garner to shed light on magazine images of actresses. “So much of the glamour is smoke and mirrors," she explains. “I see a photo of me in a magazine, and they’ve changed the shape of my nose a little bit to be more straight or changed the shape of my teeth so they could all be aligned better. On one hand, you’re happy with the photograph because you’re like, well it’s a beautiful photograph because you sat for two hours in hair and makeup and it’s the right lighting and the perfect clothes and the perfect color on your complexion, and it’s airbrushed and you’ve got hair extensions in. It’s like this thing where it’s so beautiful, but I think I fight myself about that whole process because it’s kind of a lie that we tell ourselves as women,” says Garner, who admits that the glitz goes away after she steps off of a movie set. “When I peel my eyelashes off and wash my face, I don’t look anything like that.” And though becoming her most glamorous self comes with the territory of making it in her entertainment-based career, Garner is prepared to take a stance one day against the façade of beauty. “If I get a little more momentum, maybe I can subtly make a stand, and maybe that’ll be seen,” she says. For now, though, Garner strives to make a point of flaunting her “normal” looks and pledges to refrain from letting the industry force her to become overly skeletal. “Let me know if I get too skinny!” she demands.

Garner views the opportunity to star in The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe as a turning point in her career. “I think there is some really beautiful stuff in there that might help me on my road to getting to do more of the things that I love to do,” she says. She reveals that since hitting 30, she has started to feel more like a woman and is ready to embrace dynamic characters in lieu of those she can hide behind. “Marilyn showed me what happens when you just stop being terrified and have fun,” she says. And as Garner to the future, she’s game to transition from supporting characters into more prominent and challenging roles. “No more hiding! Let’s just go play cool women and say things!” she proclaims, almost as a dare to herself.

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