Jennifer Esposito remembers being asked to audition for “The Sopranos” more than once. She declined each time.
“I chose to not go up for it when they would call me in because it was like, ‘I can’t relive this,’” Esposito recalls. “The only thing that used to make me crazy about the show when I did watch it was the character of Meadow because she was very nice. The girls I grew up around wanted to kill me, wanted to kill me every day. So it was PTSD.”
Esposito grew up among organized crime on Staten Island. “Staten Island is the same Staten Island from when I left when I was 18 years old,” says the 50-year-old actor, whose credits span from television’s “Spin City” and “Blue Bloods” to the Oscar-winning “Crash.” “It’s still the same place. You need to understand that nothing leaves this island. It’s a very strange time warp of a place.”
But now art imitates life for Esposito. She makes her writing and directorial debut with “Fresh Kills,” an indie drama set in the late 1980s and early 1990s about two sisters (Odessa A’zion and Emily Bader) whose mother (Esposito) tries to hold the family together when the girls’ mafia boss father (Domenick Lombardozzi) goes to prison. It’s a script that had been “percolating and marinating” since Esposito was 16, she says.
“And then I just got so frustrated with where my career had gone and where it was supposed to go — the way I feel it should have — and I thought, ‘Instead of complaining about the stuff that you’re not getting and not seeing, I can’t complain anymore,’” she says. “It was like you’re either quitting or you’re going to do something about it. I would say, without being dramatic, ‘I don’t think I’d be able to die unless I do this.’ It was something that needed to be done.”
“Fresh Kills” premieres during Tribeca Film Festival on June 16.
Working on the movie has been therapeutic. Esposito says she lived with unexplained rage for much of her life. “I had partners who would always tell me, ‘You’re so angry,’” she says. “I’d be like, ‘I’m not angry.’ But I was. There was anger and rage.”
She points to the violence and fear that haunted her childhood, emotions that play out in one particular scene in the movie when the sisters get into a horrific brawl with a couple of other girls from the neighborhood because they insulted their dad. The fighting is savage and ends with faces bloodied from being hit with broken bottles and slammed against brick walls and concrete streets.
“I don’t think people understand unless you lived it. That’s what I saw. And they were in their Catholic school uniforms, and they’d pull a girl on a table in a diner and beat the hell out of her till her face is off,” Esposito says. “It’s that kind of stuff. I wanted to capture that. It’s unleashing a rage that they can’t acknowledge where it’s coming from, because as soon as you touch that button of the father, it’s a match — don’t touch it.”
She understands now that “The Sopranos” was only depicting a slice of Italian-American life. “They wanted me to come in a few times for certain things, and I was like, ‘No. The way you’re portraying Italian culture? Oh, get over yourself. Really?’” Esposito says. “It was an amazing show. But you’re a kid. You don’t see that. Of course I look back, and it’s like, ‘That was stupid.’”
Even so, this helped propel Esposito to become a director — a move she knew was right for her the moment she first called, “Action!”
“I could cry now. It was nerve-wracking and beautiful, but I knew I was right where I was supposed to be,” Esposito says. “I have to say, I feel so at home in this position. I don’t even care if I’m ever in front of the camera again. This? Every angle is me. Every piece of clothing, every lighting, every music cue, every sound is me. This movie is my heart.”
She can’t wait for the premiere party. She hopes the menu includes rainbow cookies and fried donut balls known as zeppolis, both of which are signatures of New York Italian bakeries and street fairs.
We laugh at my suggestion that Aqua Net host the festivities in honor of the movie’s big ’80s hair. Esposito smiles, “I want the party to smell like Aqua Net and zeppolis.”