Witnessing the Excellence of Jennifer Esposito: Fresh Kills 

By Stephanie Okun

Not gonna lie: I had been waiting for this one. When I received the invite to go to the NYWIFT Member Screening of Jennifer Esposito’s new film Fresh Kills at Village East by Angelika, I knew this was going to be quite the event. A brand-new film about mob wives and daughters in Staten Island in the ‘80s and ‘90s, followed by a talkback with Jennifer herself, sounded like an exciting time.

I took the bus downtown ready to be surprised. I wore a blazer, tan v-neck, and black pants with my favorite boots in tow. When I wore them to my first NYWIFT Muse Awards last year, honoree Sharon Stone said hello and came up to me to tell me she loved my shoes. I’ve adored them since high school but, since an icon like Sharon Stone approved, they’ve been verified. I mean, if that doesn’t do it, what will?

Those shoes! (Photo Credit: Stephanie Okun)


Then, I finally arrived at Village East by Angelika, my favorite movie theater in the city and the fairest of them all. When you first walk in, it almost looks like you’re going to a Broadway show due to the immaculate architecture of the main lobby, until you see the popcorn counter and other wonderfully janky décor to let you know that you’re at home here. It’s the perfect mix of a trendy, new spot and an old-fashioned Paris theater. Think pop art gallery meets Phantom of the Opera.

When I entered, the warm smiles of NYWIFT Operations Manager Rashiek Smart-Charbonnier and Development Coordinator Catherine Woo were there to greet me at the door. NYWIFT makes every place better. Even my favorite movie theater. I went by myself to this screening, but that’s never an issue. Most women fly solo when they land safely at a NYWIFT event and I do most of the time as well. NYWIFT events are always a great place to meet other women and are so welcoming that you really don’t need to bring anyone to enjoy. You always wind up speaking to the woman in front of or behind you and many more after that. It’s a perfect environment to exercise your autonomy and you can feel it in the air.

From left: NYWIFT Development Coordinator Catherine Woo, Blogger Stephanie Okun, Board Member Kim Jackson, and Operations Manager Rashiek Smart (Photo Credit: Stephanie Okun)


So, in hindsight, it makes sense why this community would be so fitting for a showstopping badass like Jennifer Esposito. I knew I was in for a treat with Fresh Kills, but I just didn’t know how great it would taste. Even my high expectations for the evening were exceeded once the screening began. The room was filled with audible gasps and laughter throughout, due to the dark comedy that Jennifer mixed in so well with the dysfunctional family drama. The light was seamlessly blended in with the darkness to perfection in this emotional rollercoaster of a film.

Just as I picked my jaw up off the floor and applauded the masterful art that we all just saw on screen, I looked around me. What I saw was a room of teary-eyed and astonished individuals and I knew I wasn’t alone. All of us in the crowd had a thrilling experience that we needed time to digest. That’s when NYWIFT Board Member and producer Kim Jackson stepped in front of the screen to introduce the filmmaker and our talkback began. 

NYWIFT Member Jennifer Esposito at the talkback (Photo Credit: Fokos Foto)


Honestly, I had never seen Crash or any other movie that Jennifer Esposito was in, although I knew her name and saw her in a few magazines as a child. Like I said, Fresh Kills sounded like a film that I’d want to see and I love every NYWIFT event that I’ve been to, but I did not think I would be as impressed as I was that night. I thought I reached my peak of being impressed when the movie was over. Then Jennifer spoke. She obviously has a knack for connecting with people and, as she said herself, has always longed to do so on a larger scale.

Jennifer expressed that she made this film for anyone who has ever felt stuck or trapped in the position that they’ve been put into in this life. I don’t know anyone who can’t relate to this feeling and this came across so remarkably in her film. Yes, the story is steeped in the heart of 1980s and 90s Staten Island; yes, it’s centered around the women; and, yes, it’s a coming-of-age tale – but it really is so much more than that. The crux of the film always goes back to the frustration of the characters who were born or married into the messed-up system of mob crime and senseless violence. Jennifer recounts the rage that arose from many of the girls that she grew up with in Staten Island, which grew as strongly as the stench from the dumpsters that they all lived on top of. Jennifer wondered why they felt this way and perhaps didn’t realize that the pungent scent that surrounded her home was often that of dead bodies. As she got older, she understood and wanted to share their stories as well as her own.

NYWIFT Board Member Kim Jackson moderated the conversation (Photo Credit: Fokos Foto)


Jennifer’s talk was so inspiring, not because it was filled with falsified fantasies of a glamorous Hollywood and artistic glory, but because it was a real one. She openly shared her heart with us and spoke about the years of struggle she endured to make and get adequate distribution for this film – since there is a major distribution problem in this industry. The sad truth is that many beautiful indie films often get left behind and don’t get the attention that they deserve, but this is never an excuse to quit trying.

Jennifer was so candid and down-to-earth, and it was clear that, despite her illustrious acting career, maybe her calling was to be a filmmaker all along. Her artistic drive came across so vividly and authentically. This woman had a script and a vision, and she did everything in her power to execute it on her own, without even having representation as a writer/director since this is her first feature. She even put down a double mortgage on her house during COVID to finance the film herself.

Still from Fresh Kills (Photo Courtesy of Quiver Films)


She explained that Hollywood is a club and sometimes even she – “Jennifer Esposito”– doesn’t feel welcome. Many pigeon-holed Jennifer as another actress with a pretty face and cute, fanciful ideas. That said, whoever doubted her had it all wrong. Her high-quality filmmaking was not cute or fanciful. And she did not come off as cute or fanciful, or even like she was so much better than us in the crowd; she appeared as a fervent, fully grown professional and a highly capable human being more than anything. 

A woman of principle, Jennifer echoed her most adamant beliefs to us throughout the talkback. She was so passionate about Fresh Kills that she stayed true to her word and never strayed from her mission, despite many obstacles in the process of making it happen; several she predicted, others brand new– it didn’t matter. She told all of us to go out there and do the same because “if you want to make your film, it’s all on you.” There are many misconceptions surrounding the club that we call the entertainment industry, as well as celebrity, but it’s essential to push through and do your art. The message was engraved in stone: get after it.

When the talkback ended, Jennifer’s longtime friend, actor Michelle Hurd, gave her a big congratulatory speech and a hug. So did her student Annie, who stole the show in the film as a nun and is currently killing it on Jennifer’s and her own Instagram right now– as you can see, I’m a fan of Chi Chi’s as well. At least three to four dozen people were waiting in a cluster to speak to Jennifer after the film one-on-one.

I wanted to get coffee with Jennifer just to chat about her work, art, and life, even after hearing her speak for over thirty minutes. However, she had limited time and energy and I had to focus on interviewing her for my article, so I didn’t get to have a normal conversation with her like I might have wanted to. Even still, she was great to talk to, an articulate interviewee, and happy to take any opportunity to market her film. I also met and reconnected with many fabulous ladies of NYWIFT and beyond during the screening – as one always does –,so I certainly enjoyed my night at the movies.

Stephanie Okun (right) interviews Jennifer Esposito (Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Okun)

Most importantly, after Jennifer extensively elaborated on the challenge of getting distribution, the crowd cheered when she announced at the end of her talk that she did in fact get distribution. Fresh Kills will be in select theaters all over the country starting June 14. So don’t miss your chance– see it in theaters as soon as you can and support a wonderful filmmaker (and fellow NYWIFT member) who tells a universal story.


Stephanie Okun

Stephanie Okun Stephanie Okun is a screenwriter and recent grad from Wesleyan University. She is currently working on a feature film script set in the Kentucky horse racing world and another script that she started at Wesleyan. She is excited to join NYWIFT to make her first steps as a professional in the world of film and television.

View all posts by Stephanie Okun

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