Hollywood’s a funny place. You can have a fantastic career—featuring excellent work in, say, Hustle & Flow and an Oscar nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—and then you land one role and literally everything changes.

That’s what happened with Taraji P. Henson, who was already a very successful actress when she became Cookie Lyon on Fox’s hip-hop hit Empire (Wednesday, 9/8c), which begins its third season tonight. This rather splashy role has brought Henson a whole new level of fame, fortune, film offers and more.

And those trimmings serve as just more evidence that the D.C. native has come a long way from playing “Girl #3” in Saved by the Bell: The New Class. So we asked her all about the show’s new season, her upcoming memoir and how she learned that space exploration was achieved by more than just “a bunch of men smoking.”

“I don’t study fashion trends. I’m too busy studying my lines.”

How is Cookie different in Season 3?
I look at her like I look at myself, or any human—we’re always constantly evolving and growing and learning new things about ourselves. Just because she’s a fictional character doesn’t mean she’s not still growing. You’ve got to remember she was locked up for 17 years. She has a lot of catching up to do.

Cookie and Lucious have one of the great love-hate relationships.
I love their relationship. It’s not just black and white. This friction between these two characters challenges us to make it new and fresh each and every time, to peel back yet another layer of this complicated, complex relationship.

Do you have input into the clothes Cookie wears?
I honestly don’t bother myself with the job of a costumer. They didn’t hire me to dress Cookie. And it’s less stress for me. One outfit, I looked like I had aluminum foil on. I didn’t question it. Just bring it to me and put it on me. I’ll make it work. I don’t study fashion trends. I’m too busy studying my lines.

What was it like working with Mariah Carey, who guest stars next month?
It was amazing. I’ve always been a fan of hers. She’s quite beautiful, a sweetheart. She brought her little fairy dust and she spread it all over the set. I’m grateful that she spent time with us.

You’ve lamented that you can’t go shopping at Target anymore because you’re too recognizable. Is that still the case?
It’s getting worse every day. I can go, but I have to dress like the Unabomber! I get hit and grabbed and yanked at like a rag doll, like I’m not a human. But you’ve got to take the good with the bad. Some days I just want to go buy my bag of bananas without interaction. You have those days when you don’t want to talk. And I don’t get that luxury because of Cookie. So I stay home a lot. I found a house on a private road on the top of a hill where I can be myself.

You’re in Hidden Figures, about the female mathematicians who worked at NASA, out in January. What drew you to it?
I just thought, what an amazing true story that I never heard. Who knew women had anything to do with men getting to space? All of the footage that I’ve seen, you just see a bunch of men smoking. So I jumped at the chance to tell that story.

“I was a single mother and I put myself through college and moved out to L.A. with $700. I just tell my story and maybe it will inspire.”

Did you meet one of the women it’s based on?
I did. I was speechless because she’s so humble. Every time someone would say, “You did this!” she would go, “No. We did this. We. I didn’t do it alone.” And that’s the sign of a true hero. She’s totally selfless. She never takes all of the credit and it was her calculations that got the men there and back safely. On Apollo 13, her trajectories, her calculations brought that damaged ship back and saved those men. I was like, “I have to do this movie!”

Your memoir Around the Way Girl is coming out next month. What’s in it?Everything, pretty much, that people would want to know about me. It’s a little scary now because I decided to do the book before the Cookie sensation and there were times where I wanted to write the check back to the publishing company and be like, “I quit. I’m backing out,” because I haven’t had eyes on me like this ever in my career and now, writing this book, I feel so vulnerable.

Were there things that you hesitated to put in?
I can’t tell you everything! Of course I kept some of my secrets. But the whole purpose of writing the book is to hopefully inspire people. I was a single mother and I put myself through college and moved out to L.A. with $700. I just tell my story and maybe it will inspire.