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Actress Jennifer Esposito Talks Managing Chronic Health Issues, Her Directorial Debut and More (EXCLUSIVE)

Learn how she put her heart and soul into a powerful new crime drama

Jennifer Esposito has long been known for her many roles in films and TV shows like Summer of Sam, Crash, Spin City, Blue Bloods and Mistresses. While Esposito has been working steadily since the ’90s, she was forced to temporarily leave showbiz during her stint on Blue Bloods due to a serious illness.

At the time, Esposito was diagnosed with celiac disease after collapsing on set. The disease ultimately began to shut down her liver and make it impossible for her to stand upright. However, struggling with the disease ultimately didn’t stop the Brooklyn-born, Staten Island-bred actress from enjoying life, albeit with some modifications.

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The actress in 2023
Jennifer Esposito in 2023Jamie McCarthy/Getty for Tribeca Festival

Since being able to better manage her symptoms, Esposito has just made her directorial debut with Fresh Kills, a female-centered mob drama which she also stars in, playing a mom to two very different daughters and a loving yet flawed wife who stands by her man knowing he’s a danger.

Esposito saw Fresh Kills as a therapeutic exercise to help explain the rage and anger she endured for much of her life, and she took on a big challenge in writing, directing, producing and acting in this powerful drama that brings ’80s Staten Island to vivid life.

Here, Jennifer Esposito, the covergirl of our latest issue (click through to buy a copy!), talks to FIRST for Women about her new film and how she eventually found acceptance and peace while dealing with personal struggles.

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Jennifer Esposito on the cover of 'FIRST for Women'
FIRST for Women

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FIRST for Women: Fresh Kills deals with family, faith and redemption. How have these themes paralleled your own life?

Jennifer Esposito: When you take on something like this, it’s basically your entire life. I’ve been breathing this film, blood, sweat and tears for five years and it’s been in my brain since I was 16. It’s reaching inside yourself and something you need to express. So yes, it’s about family, but more so to me, it’s about finding a voice in a world that tells you not to have one. It’s something I needed to exorcise. It’s a very personal film.

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FFW: It’s a very brave and powerful movie. Can you speak about a moment of bravery in your personal life?

Jennifer Esposito: I can remember as a kid saying I wanted to be an actress in the fifth grade. It wasn’t a place to do that. You were supposed to stay in the status quo, and I got ridiculed for saying that. It wasn’t fun. And then I waited tables to put myself through acting school, and when my dad asked what was my fallback was, I said there is none… that was pretty brave.

FFW: The women in the movie are living in a home where the dad is an emerging mafia kingpin. Much of the story is told through the eyes of Rose, who is the more innocent of the two sisters and not Connie, who is impulsive and quick to rage. Which sister is closest to you in real life?

Jennifer Esposito: Connie is angry and displays rage while Rose is the inquisitive young girl who discovers her dad is a mafia leader. I would say I’m more Rose, and I had to become Connie. Both characters are part of me, so I had to figure out which road I was going to take. 

The actress in 2024
Jennifer Esposito in 2024Arturo Holmes/Getty

FFW: Where do you get the self-confidence to wear so many hats and put yourself out there with this new project?

Jennifer Esposito: I felt depressed for so many years and I assumed I was boxed into a corner. I just knew I had more to offer, more to say. I didn’t want to wait for the world to call me up and give me a chance.

The actress in 2017
Jennifer Esposito in 2017Cindy Ord/Getty

It was so wrong that I was waiting, and at some point, you have to look at yourself and say, what are you doing about creating your own path? No one is calling you; no one is waiting for you; no one is going to give you anything, so if you feel things need to happen, what are you going to do about it? I don’t know that it’s confidence as much as a choice: What’s the alternative?

FFW: In 2008 you were diagnosed with celiac disease and it changed your life. How have you managed the disease over the years?

Jennifer Esposito: I was very, very ill. Number one in managing it is what you eat, but you also have to get a hold of your life. With any autoimmune situation, you have to take hold of your life and it’s hard, but you also have to ask, what’s eating you? And my life was eating me. Stress, unhappiness with where I was in life — I had to work on that as well.

Eating is one thing but it’s a complete change of life and it’s a change of what you’re capable of, what you will or won’t do, boundaries… it’s all the things that I was lacking and all the stress of putting it on myself.

That’s why I left the business for a while. I needed to get healthy; I needed to get clear; I needed to understand what my purpose was, so there are a lot of things you need to do physically, but there’s also a lot of inner work you need to do in order to come out the other side. 

FFW: What were some ways that you worked through your turmoil, anger and frustration?

Jennifer Esposito: Writing. Anything creative. I had a bakery back then because of the frustration of not being able to eat certain foods, which was really about freedom and about the freedom I didn’t have anymore of being able to walk down the street and eat or travel.

This awful disease did all that stuff to my body. So, to deal with the anger, to deal with the frustration and sadness of losing that part of my life, I put it into something and I started to bake. I realized it was something that let me have control over something I had lost. I always think creativity is an outlet, whether it is baking, painting, writing or making music.

The actress in 2024
Jennifer Esposito in 2024Dia Dipasupil/Getty

I don’t have the bakery anymore, but I still bake and cook for myself. I’m not only gluten free, I’m dairy and egg free… no soy, no corn. I have to do it for myself, but it’s a release. I don’t mind doing that at all. I find it a really safe space. When my brain was going crazy, as with this film, I’d go into the kitchen and bake bread.

FFW: Do you have any other outlets for controlling stress and anxiety?

Jennifer Esposito: What has saved me lately is I listen to Mooji almost daily. It’s the most beautiful teachings.

Every day I make sure I look at the sky, I make sure I’m looking at the trees, I make sure I’m really looking at my two dogs, I make sure I feel the air, I make sure to listen to the silence around me. I make sure I’m present and check in with what’s right now.

Jennifer Esposito in 2024
Jennifer Esposito in 2024Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty

FFW: What excites you most about the years ahead?

Jennifer Esposito: I don’t know and I love that. I like that I don’t know. It scares me that I don’t know, but I like that. I like getting older. I like seeing the lines around my eyes; I don’t love it when I don’t look like myself, but I like the change and with every change something new happens. I feel change is growth.

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