ATLANTA -- ATLANTA (AP) — 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."

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Online:


http://www.iminlovewithachurchgirl.com

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Follow Jonathan Landrum Jr. on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MrLandrum31

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  • Jane Fonda

    <strong>When:</strong> 1970 <strong>How long:</strong> Released almost immediately <strong>Why:</strong> While traveling through the Cleveland airport, she kicked a cop and was falsely accused of smuggling drugs that turned out to be vitamins.

  • Tim Allen*

    <strong>When:</strong> 1979-1981 <strong>How long:</strong> 2 years <strong>Why:</strong> Caught with 1.4 pounds of cocaine, pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges <em>*Star has been in jail more than once, with the longest stint listed here.</em>

  • Paul McCartney*

    <strong>When:</strong> 1980 <strong>How long:</strong> 10 days <strong>Why:</strong> Caught with half a pound of marijuana at Tokyo airport

  • Zsa Zsa Gabor

    <strong>When:</strong> 1990 <strong>How long:</strong> 72 hours <strong>Why:</strong> Slapped a police officer who pulled her over and found she was had no valid driver's license, was driving an unregistered vehicle and had an open alcohol container

  • Frank Sinatra

    <strong>When:</strong> 1938 <strong>How long:</strong> 16 hours <strong>Why:</strong> Having an affair with a married woman, which was illegal at the time

  • 50 Cent*

    <strong>When:</strong> 1994 <strong>How long:</strong> 6 months in shock incarceration boot camp, where he received his GED <strong>Why:</strong> Police search found heroin, crack-cocaine and a starter gun in his home

  • Martha Stewart

    <strong>When:</strong> 2004-2005 <strong>How long:</strong> Five months, followed by two years of supervised release <strong>Why:</strong> Found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of an agency proceeding and making false statements to federal investigators after she was accused of corporate fraud

  • Lil Wayne*

    <strong>When:</strong> 2007 <strong>How long:</strong> Five months, followed by two years of supervised release <strong>Why:</strong> Smoking marijuana and in possession of a pistol outside his tour bus

  • Robert Downey Jr.*

    <strong>When:</strong> 1999 <strong>How long:</strong> Served one year of a three-year sentence at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison <strong>Why:</strong> Missed a required drug test during his three-year probation sentence that was handed down in 1999 after he trespassed into a neighbor's home and fell asleep on a bed there while high

  • Ja Rule*

    <strong>When:</strong> 2011-2013 <strong>How long:</strong> 28 months <strong>Why:</strong> Possession of a weapon and tax evasion

  • Mark Wahlberg

    <strong>When:</strong> 1986 <strong>How long:</strong> Served 45 days of a two-year sentence <strong>Why:</strong> Charged with attempted murder and assault after attacking a middle-aged Vietnamese man on the street and knocking him unconscious with a large wooden stick

  • Jamie Waylett*

    <strong>When:</strong> 2012 <strong>How long:</strong> 2 years (still ongoing) <strong>Why:</strong> Charged with violent disorder, having an article with intent to destroy or damage property and receiving stolen goods for his participation in the 2011 England riots. He was also found to be cultivating marijuana in his home and was accused of being in possession of a Molotov cocktail.

  • Richard Hatch

    <strong>When:</strong> 2006-2009 <strong>How long:</strong> 3 years <strong>Why:</strong> Convicted of failing to pay taxes on the $1 million he received as the winner of the first season of "Survivor"

  • Wesley Snipes

    <strong>When:</strong> 2010-2013 <strong>How long:</strong> 3 years <strong>Why:</strong> Multiple counts of failing to file federal income tax returns

  • Rip Torn*

    <strong>When:</strong> 2010 <strong>How long:</strong> 4 days, followed by rehab and a two-and-a-half-year suspended sentence that's still ongoing <strong>Why:</strong> Claiming to have thought it was his home, broke into a bank while intoxicated and carrying a gun without a permit

  • Paris Hilton*

    <strong>When:</strong> 2007 <strong>How long:</strong> 3 days, followed by 40 days of home monitoring via an electronic ankle bracelet <strong>Why:</strong> Violated probation after failing to enroll in a court-ordered rehab program and being pulled over for speeding and driving without a license

  • Wynonna Judd

    <strong>When:</strong> 2003 <strong>How long:</strong> Released on bail and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service while on a one-year suspended sentence <strong>Why:</strong> DUI

  • Michelle Rodriguez*

    <strong>When:</strong> 2007 <strong>How long:</strong> 18 days of a 180-day sentence (She was released due to overcrowding) <strong>Why:</strong> Violating probation after a previous DUI arrest by not performing her designated community-service hours or following her alcohol education program

  • Christian Slater*

    <strong>When:</strong> 1997 <strong>How long:</strong> 59 days of a three-month sentence, along with extensive rehab <strong>Why:</strong> Assaulted his girlfriend while high and drunk

  • Danny Trejo

    <strong>When:</strong> 1961-1972 <strong>How long:</strong> 11 years, including a 12-step program <strong>Why:</strong> Drug and robbery charges

  • Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi

    <strong>When:</strong> 2010 <strong>How long:</strong> A few hours <strong>Why:</strong> Disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct and criminal annoyance of others

  • Chace Crawford

    <strong>When:</strong> 2010 <strong>How long:</strong> A few hours <strong>Why:</strong> Found with less than 2 ounces of marijuana while sitting in a parked car

  • Amanda Bynes

    <strong>When:</strong> 2012 <strong>How long:</strong> One night <strong>Why:</strong> DUI

  • Matthew McConaughey

    <strong>When:</strong> 1999 <strong>How long:</strong> Nine hours <strong>Why:</strong> Resisted arrest after a late-night disturbance in which he was accused of smoking marijuana while playing bongo drums loudly in his home

  • Fiona Apple

    <strong>When:</strong> 2012 <strong>How long:</strong> One night <strong>Why:</strong> Caught with hashish and marijuana at a border-patrol checkpoint