ATLANTA -- Ja Rule, who recently spent nearly two years behind bars for illegal gun possession, landed a role in a new movie because screenwriter Galley Molina empathized with the rapper's missteps.
"People used to ask, 'Well, you know he's a felon?' And I would say, 'Well, so am I,'" recalled Molina, a 44-year-old pastor who was locked up for five years for drug trafficking.
"I know his heart. I know what type of dude he is, and he was probably one of the most professional guys on the set."
"I'm in Love With a Church Girl" will debut Oct. 18 in more than 280 theaters in the U.S. Ja Rule stars as a high-level drug dealer who struggles to leave his illegal lifestyle behind after getting into a serious relationship with a church-going woman played by Adrienne Bailon of Cheetah Girls and 3LW fame. Stephen Baldwin, "Sopranos" actor Vincent Pastore and Michael Madsen also appear in the movie.
The film, which was produced by Molina and Grammy-winning Christian singer Israel Houghton, is based on Molina's life. Ja Rule was hired while his gun possession cases were pending. He was released from house arrest in July after he had served most of a two-year sentence in a New York state prison before his subsequent transfer into federal custody in a tax evasion case. He admitted to failing to pay taxes on more than $3 million earned between 2004 and 2006.
"This role was very different for me," said Ja Rule, whose film credits include "The Fast and the Furious." "I've done a lot of films that all have been pretty edgy. I played thug characters, but with this character, even though I play a thug somewhat, he's really a guy going through a transition."
The 37-year-old Ja Rule, born Jeffrey Atkins, said he put on 30 pounds in jail and read a number of books. He also earned his GED and said ex-New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi and ex-Tyco International CEO Dennis Kozlowski urged him to pursue higher education.
"It's really minimum -- all of the fame, the movies and the music. When you're behind that wall, all that becomes very minimum," said Ja Rule, who burst on the music scene in 1999 and released back-to-back multiplatinum and platinum albums. "I was more focused on getting my mind right, getting my body right, more thinking about my family. Those are the things you cherish."
Ja Rule became known for hip-hop jams that became Top 40 successes, including No. 1 hits with Jennifer Lopez and Ashanti. He earned a number of awards, including four Grammy nominations. He said he's still excited about recording, but he wants to focus on TV and film.
"I love music, it's my passion," said Ja Rule, who independently released "Pain Is Love 2" during his incarceration last year but put up subpar numbers. "This is my second wind right now, and I'm happy to be home, but I think as I'm getting older, my passion is leaning toward doing more television and film. Music is my heart, but I see television and more movies in the next stage of my life."