How Empire’s Taraji P. Henson Turned $700 into Hollywood Stardom

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Like the fierce Cookie Lyon she plays on Fox’s hit drama Empire, Taraji P. Henson knows what it’s like to start with nothing.

“People thought I was crazy,” Henson, 44, tells PEOPLE of deciding to leave her lucrative job back home in Washington, D.C., to take a shot at making it big in Hollywood.

Henson had graduated from Howard University and was working as a supervisor on a five-star dining cruise when she packed up her son Marcel, now 20, and moved to California at the age of 26.

“My dad knew that acting was my calling,” says Henson. “One day, he looked at me and said, ‘How do you expect to catch fish on dry land?’ So I moved out here with my son with $700 in our pocket.”

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For more on Henson’s raise to fame, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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