Decked Out: Kelli Garner's Marilyn Monroe Moment

PRETA Kelli Garner - H 2015
Amy Dickerson

PRETA Kelli Garner - H 2015

The actress, starring in Lifetime's miniseries 'The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe,' tells Pret-a-Reporter how the late beauty icon influenced her style.

It's been a hot second since we've seen Kelli Garner on the small screen (she starred in the short-lived ABC series Pan Am), but come this weekend we'll be able to catch her on Lifetime as one of Hollywood's most iconic beauties: Marilyn Monroe. The star of The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (based on J. Randy Taraborrelli's New York Times best-seller of the same name), the network's two-night miniseries premiering May 30, reveals she was drawn to this particular story for "the issues of mental health the series deals with. There was so much about Marilyn that I didn't know."

Despite any fear she may have felt in playing the young Norma Jeane Mortenson, the 31-year-old tells Pret-a-Reporter that her worries "kind of took a backseat to my urge to want to work with Susan Sarandon and Emily Watson — they are two of my favorite actresses."

Before the miniseries' debut on Saturday, we chatted with Garner about playing the blond bombshell, the amount of wardrobe changes she went through on set, and what Monroe taught her about her own outfits.

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What were some things you learned about Marilyn?

I didn't know she had a mother — well, I knew she had a mother (laughs) — who was diagnosed schizophrenic, in and out of mental institutions, while Marilyn was climbing to the top and you know, at her height. She lied about it; I think she told lots of weird different little stories. Mental health is still stigmatized, but back then, even [more]. I didn't know she spent a lot of her time with doctors, therapists. I didn't realize the fortitude she had. I didn't realize the great work ethic she had. She's a fighter, hard worker. She's a perfectionist — I think I share that with her. I didn't know how hard-core of a perfectionist she was until I started reading about it.

What was your own reaction when you saw yourself as one of Hollywood's most iconic beauties?

Right?! I think I might have shed a tear at one point because everyone just worked so hard, and I'll never look more beautiful than being made up to try and look like the most beautiful woman that quite possibly ever walked the face of the Earth. It was nice to look in the mirror and not feel silly, so that I could just do my job. I could rely on the wig, great makeup and beautiful costumes, and now I can just do my job rather than being concerned that I look weird or terrible. I was like, "Alright great. Good work, guys. Now it's my turn." (Laughs.)

I can only imagine all the cool pieces you got to wear on set.

[There were] 99 costume changes. It was over a week of costume fittings and the costume room was just wallpapered with, I think, every image of Marilyn possible. That was my first week of work. Everyone kept handing me photo books and I was like, "I get it! I know what she looks like." (Laughs.) It taught me a lot about my own wardrobe. I actually came home and threw out half of my clothes. I had gone through this phase where I stopped being attracted to color.

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Was that an influence on today's darker color scheme?

Yes, well, I love hunter green. And it is a color. Marilyn taught me, for my figure, to go tight but high neck. Keep it classy, so that's really nice. I think I was also doing that bohemian thing where all my sweaters were boy sweaters and boyfriend pants, which I love, but this is me, too, when I dress up. I was just not embracing my figure the way you can as a woman. And she loved colors. A lot of people say she wore famous black turtlenecks, but she was really good in some color.

Of all the costume changes, which one was your favorite?

Well, I'll give you two. Iconic Marilyn — I would have to say that gold lamé dress with the crinkle and low [neckline]. It's just such a beautiful dress. But I think my favorite in the whole show is a Norma Jeane outfit. They reconstructed to the exact outfit that you see she [actually wore]: a little red striped shirt, these tiny Daisy Duke white overalls and big ol' '40s heels.

Were a lot of pieces handmade or store-bought?

A mix of vintage that was all taken in to fit my body, and a lot of the dresses were made from scratch by beautiful seamstresses — we had about seven of them. I was shocked by the amount of attention to detail — oh, wait a second, the "Happy Birthday" dress was the most beautiful thing I think I put on because it's just thin, nude netting and hundreds of Swarovski crystals. And you just feel so beautiful. That was pretty great.

Did you get to walk away with any of the pieces?

I'm supposed to! I did a bargain — I was like, "Look, this is a really hard role. Like every time you force me, I need an outfit." And they were like, "You mean … " I was like, "No, no. You pay me and I get an outfit." (Laughs.) They were like, "OK, whatever you want as long as you keep giving us some good dailies." So yeah, I'm supposed to have like 20 outfits and they were all made either for me or altered to my body so they should be mine. I cleared out room in my closest already. (Laughs.)

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How would you describe your everyday style?

Really casual — I'm a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl. I love the boyfriend pant. I actually love wearing my boyfriend's clothes. I love a boy button-down with jeans. I think girls are really sexy in boy clothes, so that's kind of how I do it. I wear a sports bra a lot. I'm chesty so the more comfortable — high heels, beautiful — but I'm usually in a pointy-toe rocker boot and jeans. And no makeup. Because you already have to wear so much, and for Marilyn, I had to wear so much — it destroys my skin. I don't have the skin that can handle it.

So what was your beauty routine like then?

In Toronto, they gave me weekly facials, so I had someone taking care of my skin for me. I'm a tomboy and kind of a beautiful mess of a woman. I don't necessarily have a routine — (whispering) don't tell my dermatologist. I'm lucky if I wash my face before I go to bed. I'm not a consistent person in terms of routine but I think that has to do with being an actor. I just never know where I'm going to be.

Who influenced your style growing up?

Probably Britney Spears. (Laughs.) Right? You're like a 14-year-old girl, and you’re just like, "Give me a crop-top and tight jeans and that stomach. I'm not a fashionista. I work from the '40s to '60s a lot, so I'm blessed to get to understand fashion more when I get to work with great stylists. But myself, sometimes it's just what's on the floor — I'm really messy.

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Who's your personal stylist?

I work with a woman named Basia Richard. She's wonderful. She put me in a beautiful Dolce & Gabbana white strapless silk gown at the Golden Globes once, and it was just so simple and understated — I was like, "I like this woman" because you know, as I'm learning about what my style is, the more effortless, simple, sexy, but not overtly [sexy], that's it — clean lines, cool colors. I'm very minimalistic with jewelry and stuff too. Just give me great hair and makeup and you can make anything work.

What's the best style tip she's shared with you?

Less is more.

1. Joan Hornig earrings

2. BCBG Max Azria dress

3. Jerome Rousseau heels

4. Melinda Maria rings

Kelli Garner was photographed by Amy Dickerson on May 21 at Butchers and Barbers in Hollywood.