What do you get when you take a former drug dealer, a Grammy-award winning gospel singer and a formerly incarcerated rapper? A new movie and hopefully, a new perspective on empathy. Famed gospel artist Israel Houghton and drug dealer-turned-pastor Galley Molina, hired the former Murder Inc. rapper Jeffery “Ja Rule” Atkins as the lead in their new movie I’m in Love with a Church Girl–even while he was preparing to serve a 28-month-sentence on gun possession and tax evasion charges.

“The majority of the movie was shot before (RGM’s casting directors) reached out to Ja Rule; it was before he went away—the casting,” said Molina.

Molina, whose life the movie is based on, thought Atkins was perfect for the role, despite the rapper’s legal woes.

"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,"  Molina said in a HuffPost article.

The movie also stars Adrienne Bailon of Cheetah Girls and 3LW fame and Stephen Baldwin with appearances from Sopranos actor Vincent Pastore and Michael Madsen. Atkins will play highly respected drug dealer, who gains a different perspective stemming from his relationship with churchgoing Veronica Leon, Bailon’s character.  

Like his character, Atkins, who made his rap debut in 1999, which went on to sell millions of records worldwide, is no stranger to adversity—having faced major legal problems and parting ways with the Murder Inc. crew that made him famous. Coupled with his compelling new movie role, and his recently-ended prison time, the Queens native's outlook on life has evolved.

When asked if he became closer to God while he was locked uo, he jokingly said “Yes! Let’s see you go to jail and see if you pray don’t every day. I went in and decided to read the Bible from front to back. I just worked out and read the Bible.”

Even that ended up becoming a challenge. 

“Someone stole my Bible," said Atkins with a laugh.  “But he needed it more than me."

This is a far cry from the days of his highly publicized beef with fellow rapper-turned-actor Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and the years he spent in the spotlight with then-label mate Ashanti and troubled Murder Inc. founder Irv Gotti. 

When asked of his current ties to the two, he says that they are still like his family. “Irv is always my brother–Ashanti my sister. We’re like a dysfunctional family but we have a good relationship,” he Atkins stated.

As far as his music career taking a backseat to his acting, his focus is clear. “I really want to give film some of my full attention. Within the last 10 years, I have turned down some well known film because of music,” Atkins said. “At the time it wasn’t feasible. Now it’s something I really want to; I’m willing to put film first.

Atkins also has a book in the works. “I’m almost done with it,” he said. “A book tour is in the works for my memoir with Harper & Collins." 

“I'm optimistic,” he says, “and I’m blessed to be with these two gentlemen (Houghton and Molina). I’m going to do it right this time and I think my blessing will come to me.”

I’m in Love with a Church Girl hits theaters on October 18th 2013.