The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe: Lifetime mini reveals the broken heart behind the bombshell

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Susan Sarandon ("Gladys") and Kelli Garner ("Marilyn") in Lifetime's THE SECRET LIFE OF MARILYN MONROE.

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe premieres in two parts Saturday, May 30, and Sunday, May 31 at 8/7CT on Lifetime.


Everybody knows “Marilyn Monroe” — she of the frothy halo of platinum hair, baby-doll voice and va-va-voom figure, splendidly showcased in her most memorable films. But few people know the real Marilyn Monroe, a.k.a. Norma Jeane Mortenson, a lonely foster child who used her kittenish charm, lush good looks — and, yes, her considerable intellect — to escape a nightmarish youth at the hands of her neglectful mother, Gladys.

Kelli Garner as Marilyn Monroe in THE SCRET LIFE OF MARILYN MONROE”
Photo Philippe Bosse / Lifetime

Now Lifetime’s ready to reveal the woman behind the sexpot image in its new four-hour miniseries, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, based on J. Randy Taraborrelli’s best-selling 2010 biography starring Kelli Garner as Marilyn,  Susan Sarandon as Gladys, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and Emily Watson as Grace McKee, Gladys’ friend and Norma Jeane’s sole source of stable support.

The mini reveals that while she was steaming up the silver screen and battling to be taken seriously behind the scenes, Marilyn also nursed deeply rooted mental and emotional frailties inherited from her mother, a woman she tried desperately to protect even as she longed for a mother’s love herself. Turning to men for protection and unconditional love, Marilyn was caught up in a vicious cycle of fame and fragility that led to disastrous marriages and unhealthy obsessions that ultimately destroyed her.

We caught up with the mini’s own Marilyn, Kelli Garner (Lars and the Real Girl), to talk about stepping into the life of entertainment’s most misunderstood bombshell.

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Susan Sarandon (“Gladys”) and Kelli Garner (“Marilyn”) in Lifetime’s THE SECRET LIFE OF MARILYN MONROE.

Many actresses have played Marilyn Monroe with varying degrees of success, so tell me your reaction to learning you’d landed the part and would be getting your chance — alongside Susan Sarandon.
Kelli Garner: When I started to put myself out there and be like, “I do want to play this role — I can be good in this role!”, Susan was already attached. So I was fighting for the opportunity to work with Susan Sarandon and Emily Watson, as well — “If that’s the cast they got, I want to be in that! I want to be Marilyn in this version — I want to work with those women!” It was really beautiful, and as great of an actress as Susan is, she is a greater woman. Nothing made me happier than the time I got to spend with her.

Your resemblance to Marilyn in the film is stunning. Tell us about seeing yourself completely “Marilyn-ed out” for the first time.
I was super excited for that process! I think it’s really fun when you get to play a role that has a lot of hair and makeup, because it is a transformation. And Norma Jeane really looked nothing like Marilyn Monroe either — she was this total construct. I play her from age 15 to 36, so when I finally got to that iconic look, I was relieved that I thought it looked good enough that I could just focus on doing my job. It’s crazy to be made up as Marilyn Monroe!

One of Marilyn’s most distinctive attributes was her voice. Difficult nailing that part of the role down?
Early in the process when I was working with the director, she really didn’t want a voice. Everyone has their idea of Marilyn Monroe, so it is probably hard to watch so many people’s tapes come in, and I think she was done with the voice by the time I met with her. She was like, “Please don’t do the voice,” and I was like, “Can I just try one?” [Laughs] But by the time it came to shooting, we were more about it being there for times when she wanted to be using Marilyn for some effect and not being there for others to try to keep her more human. It was fun to play around with!

Kelli Garner (“Marilyn”) stars in the all-new Lifetime miniseries, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe. Photo by Kevin Lynch

Tell me about getting to peel back the layers on an entertainment icon that even fans know so little about and to show how complex her life really was.
It was beautiful to see that this is a woman that struggled with things that we all still struggle with today, and some stuff that we don’t — like mental health, like the fact that her mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic and she had to deal with that on a daily basis. It was a really interesting side of her that is not as playful as we know Marilyn to be. She was so smart. She had the courage and fortitude against everything she was dealing with in her life to become this construct that was Marilyn Monroe. I didn’t know a lot about her when I booked this. She is so wise. She is deep and she is soulful. And she is really creative. It makes me sad she is, to this day, so loved, and it is probably the one thing she couldn’t find.

How much does the film delve into Marilyn’s own mental issues?
Back then I don’t think they understood all the medications she was on, and she liked to drink a lot of champagne — at least our version of the story she does. [Laughs] We show how she loved to be set free with liquor and medication and I don’t think they knew what long-term use of that does, and how that could make you feel and what that can do to you. It’s sad to me that she couldn’t get the help we wish that she would have gotten. That is why I love our story because it uses a vice to tell her story by sitting her down with a fictional therapist at her last moments. It’s really cool. I think it is a beautiful way that we get into the story.

Did a little bit of Marilyn go with you when filming ended?
I think one of the most beautiful things about Marilyn Monroe is she had fun playing Marilyn Monroe. I have been acting for 15 years and I am proud of myself most days and it is such an interesting thing to live in. But I have the tendency to forget to have fun. And I think Marilyn is such a feminist. … I think that one of Marilyn’s greatest qualities is her vulnerability — and maybe one of her worst. But she stood up for her power and her talent. She was way ahead for her time. The tragedy is what a voice Marilyn Monroe would have been today for the continuous struggles with inequality of the sexes and civil rights, and I think she would have been a huge voice for gay rights. I just think she is really special. We all do.

Kelli Garner as Marilyn Monroe. Photo by Ben Mark Holzberg

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe premieres in two parts Saturday, May 30, and Sunday, May 31 at 8/7CT on Lifetime.



  1. Will this great show be shown again in the near future? My wife and I missed it and my wife is a life long fan. Please let us know yes or no> We hope so. Thank you if you reply……..

  2. I watched Secret life of Marilyn Monroe knowing much of her story. What I did not know was the depth of her own mental illness. So little is still known on this disease that takes thousands of people each year. Self medicating is still popular today , but in Monroe’s day, the doctors practiced what they advised patients to stay away from. There were no mental health medications available, so downers and uppers seem to be the medication of choice by many, swollowed down with booze. Sadly it still exsists today. Rehab was a rubber room, and straight jacket. We have made some strives on that, since it too falls under mental Illness. All in all, with the demons this woman faced, her mother’s care and how the business of show business, was more on whom to screw your way to the top, than talent. I’m surprised her strength and determination got her as far as it did. She thrived off her fans, and there love. Sadly they were not enough. No one may ever know what was in the mind of Marilyn Monroe, including her.

  3. Lifetime’s The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is a pleasant surprise. This is a TV movie not just for women and you can thank Kelli Garner for that. Hands down the best performance as the Hollywood Bombshell to date. Much is being said about Sarandon’s part in the miniseries (and it is good), but it will be Garner’s performance as Monroe that is remembered.

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About Lori Acken 1195 Articles
Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.