Kelli Garner savors the role of a lifetime: Marilyn Monroe

The story of Marilyn Monroe blew Kelli Garner’s skirt up. Literally.

One of the highlights in Lifetime’s The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, premiering 7 p.m. Saturday, is the re-creation of a classic scene from The Seven Year Itch.

“It was such silly fun to stand over a subway grate and have somebody turn a dial that whooshed air up my dress,” Garner says. “That’s one of the most famous scenes in movie history. It was very surreal to be re-enacting it.”

There are other memorable moments from the blonde bombshell’s life and career that appear in this four-hour, two-night miniseries.

Among them is her famous Playboy magazine photo shoot (which happens in Part 1). As for the antics in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch, that scene turns up on the second night, at 7 p.m. Sunday.

“It was interesting to walk into those spaces as Marilyn, because she holds such power,” Garner says. “She was epically beautiful and a complete sex symbol, so people definitely look at you differently when you enter the room as her.

“Men dreamed of being with her; women dreamed of being like her. It was fun to be on the receiving end of that.”

But as much as she enjoyed that aspect of the role, what Garner savored even more were the “secret” behind-closed-doors moments that the miniseries title promises and delivers.

“I had seen Marilyn’s movies, but I didn’t know that much about her,” Garner says. “For example, I didn’t know her dynamic with her mother and her struggle with mental illness. But as I started to learn more about that side of her, I realized that I loved this story.”

The outside world never actually knew Norma Jeane Mortenson. Marilyn Monroe was just a construct. In her private life, she was tormented by self-doubt, loneliness and mental illness that she inherited from her mother (played by Susan Sarandon).

“Everyone thought she was this playful ‘anything goes’ girl, but she wasn’t,” Garner says. “She was a classic Gemini, two identities and struggling with that duality throughout her life.”

Garner, 31, knows a thing or two about this style of period-piece filmmaking. She played 1940s starlet Faith Domergue in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) and was a 1960s stewardess in TV’s Pan Am (2011-12).

Of course, the difference between portraying Domergue (who had a 30-year acting career) and Monroe is that Marilyn’s fame hasn’t faded with the passage of time.

Because Marilyn is so enduring, Garner had to go the extra mile to look, move and talk like her. The performance in The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, therefore, is something of a tightrope walk. She wanted to capture the essence of the woman without resorting to mere mimicry.

“I feared doing too much or too little,” Garner says. “I tried to understand what made her tick as a woman — and there are her very specific mannerisms that you see over and over again when you watch Marilyn — but there are also some of my characteristics as Kelli that I bring forward to make her real.”

Garner has a much greater appreciation for Marilyn Monroe today. “I am a true fan now,” she says. “I have all the DVDs.”

There’s one pesky problem attached to having played this role, however.

“People keep giving me Marilyn memorabilia,” Garner says. “Like, every piece of merchandise imaginable. I’ve got a whole closet full of Marilyn things now and the miniseries hasn’t even aired yet.”

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe

▪ 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

▪ Lifetime