ABOVE: JA RULE IN I’M IN LOVE WITH A CHURCH GIRL
You may not have heard much from Ja Rule in a while, except on Spotify playlists that wax nostalgic for early-aughts MTV Jams. After his duet with Jennifer Lopez “I’m Real” faded from the soundtracks of every house party and radio power hour in 2002, he put out two greatest-hits albums, Exodus and Icon, took parts in a few films (inlcuding one in Don’t Fade Away alongside Mischa Barton, which was released on DVD in Australia), and went to jail in 2011 for weapons possession and failure to file with the IRS.
Rule was released this summer, and so far he seems eager to seize the end of his sentence as a chance to rebrand. On “Fresh Out Da Pen,” the first track he’s dropped since leaving Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center in May, he announces: “Just came home and I breathe different, I shine different, my mind different.” His starring role in I’m in Love with a Church Girl, in theaters tomorrow, casts him quite uncannily as a repentant criminal looking for a fresh start in God’s good graces. (God is, in fact, listed as Executive Producer in the opening credits. Rule, for the first time in his film career, is billed as Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins.) When we met up with him at his Midtown agency, Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins talked a lot about his respect for new guys in the industry like Meek Mill, 2Chainz, Drake, and Miguel, and avowed his commitment to a new sound—in his words, “something new, something different, something fresh.”
ZACHARY ETHEART: You must have related to your character in Church Girl.
JEFFREY ATKINS: Yeah, the character is very relatable. You know, there’s a lot of me in Miles and vice-versa.
ETHEART: How do you think?
ATKINS: You know, they’re going through something. It’s a constant struggle of good and evil. I definitely know that struggle. I go through that daily.
ETHEART: What’s been your favorite movie to film before this one?
ATKINS: I like ’em all. One of my favorites was Assault on Precinct 13, just because the level of actors that I was acting with was really a learning experience for me. I’m like a sponge. I like to just get in there and absorb everything, soak everything up. And being with Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke and John Leguizamo—I mean, those guys are like theater actors. They’re thespians, for real. So being around them was really great for me.
ETHEART: So you’re going to keep acting?
ATKINS: I think I wanna do some action stuff down the road. I wanna kill some aliens. [laughs] Something real fun, you know? Just a big, fun movie.
ETHEART: What would you say is your dream role?
ATKINS: Oh man, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I would love to do something like Beverly Hills Cop. [laughs] I’d get to be funny and cool and heroic all in the same breath.
ETHEART: Who would you want to costar with?
ATKINS: There are so many great actors. Denzel—I would love to do something with Denzel. Will Smith. Yeah, me and Will should do something. [laughs]
ETHEART: He has experience killing aliens.
ATKINS: He definitely does.
ETHEART: When did you shoot Church Girl?
ATKINS: Before I went to jail.
ETHEART: By now you must be pretty comfortable on a movie set.
ATKINS: You know, whenever you’re shooting a film there’s different obstacles and challenges, whether it be from the makeup artist getting fired that you liked or whatever [laughs]—the one that did the makeup the way you wanted. There’s always stuff that changed, like the DP leaving the set, and there’s a new guy in there, and the way he does lighting isn’t the same as the last guy. There’s always something going on on movie sets. Even just from, you know, maybe you come in tired some days and you’re not in your best mood. It’s different when you’re shooting movies because you’re on a schedule and you gotta come with your A-game every day.
ETHEART: As opposed to an album?
ATKINS: As opposed to an album. When you don’t feel it, you don’t do it. “I don’t feel it today, guys, I’m not coming in.” It’s not like that with a movie. [laughs] “You ain’t feelin’ it today? Well, you better get to feelin’ it, because we’re shooting in about an hour.”
ETHEART: So how do you get to feeling it?
ATKINS: I got a couple of rituals, a couple of methods, man. But I can’t speak about them right now. [laughs]
ETHEART: Was there anything you were dying to do as soon as you got out this summer?
ATKINS: Yeah, just the little things. Sex was on the top of my list. [laughs] That was the first thing. I said, “Baby, when we get home, you’re gonna get it, girl.” You know? That was the first thing. And then I just wanted a cheeseburger. I hadn’t had a real cheeseburger in like two years, so I wanted a good cheeseburger. When you go to jail, there’s so much simple stuff missing. You just want some good toilet paper or a real toothbrush, a real blanket and a real bed to lay in. I layed in a metal bed for two years with a bootleg plastic mattress. My back was finished. [laughs] It’s just the small things. To dress in some real clothes, to get to wear jeans.
ETHEART: Did you get to listen to a lot of music?
ATKINS: Yeah and no, because even though we were allowed to listen to radio and stuff like that, where I was locked up there was nothing but pop stations. So I listened to a lot of Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Which is good. I like that stuff. It wasn’t a problem, but I wanted to hear some hip-hop. I wanted to hear some New York hip-hop. I was dying to get back to New York. So when they switched me back to MDC, I was happy to hear New York radio.
ETHEART: What was it like to have to wait for a song you wanted to come on?
ATKINS: It kind of sucked. [laughs] Because you know, we live in an era now where everything is pushed. We live in a push world where everything gets pushed to you. It’s like, I don’t have to wait for you to send it to me, I’ll go get it off the Internet. So it was difficult to be back in that sort of situation. But it was cool.
ETHEART: How do you feel when you listen to your stuff from 2001?
ATKINS: I mean, it’s classic hip-hop. It’s good music. People still play it now and enjoy it. For a lot of people it brings them back to a certain period of time. One of the dudes that was just here before you was like, “Man, you was like the soundtrack to my high school life.” So that makes me feel good, because for me that’s what music is. I know I have those records, too. KRS-One, “Love’s Gonna Get’cha,” you know? [laughs] Like those records when I was in high school. I’m just happy that I was able to provide that.
ETHEART: When did you start thinking about acting?
ATKINS: Acting was something I always wanted to try. I just didn’t know how, or I didn’t know when the door was gonna be open for me to try it. But it finally opened up for me when I did Turn It Up, and ever since then I’ve been in love with doing films.
ETHEART: What did you want to be when you were really little?
ATKINS: Really little? How little?
ETHEART: Like single digits.
ATKINS: Oh, man. I knew I wanted to be successful in some form or fashion. My first dreams and aspirations of being successful was probably that I wanted to be a successful drug dealer. I wanted to be Nino Brown. [laughs] That was my first dream. And when I figured out that it’s really harder to be Nino Brown than it looks on TV, I fell back on something else that I wanted to try, which was music. And movies later. Film and TV and stuff like that was something that I wanted to do when I was really, really little, like I remember I used to do these plays with my cousins. We used to do Michael Jackson performances and I would be Michael. Feeling that energy from the people clapping, like, “Yeah, yeah, you did such a good job. You were so good doing Mike.” Feeling that, I was like, you know what? I think I like this. I like people to be energized and giving me props for doing what I do. I just like that energy. When I figured out that that was really hard, the next best thing was to be Nino Brown. Then I figured out that was really hard, too, so I said, “Okay, lemme try this other thing and see if that’s easier.” [laughs]
ETHEART: Maybe you can play Nino in a remake one day.
ATKINS: Yeah. Maybe I can.
I’M IN LOVE WITH A CHURCH GIRL COMES OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TOMORROW, OCTOBER 18.