July 04, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

When Halle Berry shot the opening scene in Extant, she was pretty sure she was going to throw up.

That’s not because the Oscar-winning actress was nervous about doing a TV series for the first time in more than two decades, or because she’d eaten something heavy for lunch. Berry plays an astronaut who returns from a solo space mission with a surprise castaway in her belly, so she was prepared to act out some graphic morning sickness. That is, until someone told her about the no-nos of TV nausea. ”This is gross, but I heard that we couldn’t show vomit on CBS. Like, we couldn’t actually put fake stuff inside my mouth and show it on network television, so the best we could do was to show a little spittle,” says Berry, laughing. ”Everybody joked about how people are going to want to watch me on TV, and I’ll be, like, vomiting. It was a running joke: Welcome to TV!”

It’s hard to say which is crazier: CBS lassoing an A-lister for a summer show about space babies, or one of Hollywood’s most gorgeous celebrities drooling into a toilet in prime time. Then again, where this show is concerned, everything is a little out of the ordinary. Penned by newcomer Mickey Fisher, Extant (debuting July 9 at 9 p.m.) tells the tale of Molly Woods (Berry), an infertile astronaut whose scientist husband, John (Goran Visnjic of ER), creates a robot-child prototype named Ethan (Looper‘s Pierce Gagnon) to build their family. But when Molly returns to Earth after a 13-month mission, she finds out she’s pregnant — the result of a zero-gravity tryst that may or may not have involved her dead boyfriend’s alien doppelgänger and a potentially sinister high-level conspiracy. ”I was pregnant when I met the writers for the first time, and I said, ‘Wow, too bad I’m not really like this when we start because we could use my real pregnant belly,”’ Berry recalls. ”And they said, ‘Well, you’re never going to look pregnant like that in the show.’ I said, ‘But I come back pregnant with this alien baby, right?’ They said, ‘Mmm-hmmm.’ So then I asked, ‘I don’t kill it, right?’ They said no. I said, ‘Does anybody kill it?’ They said no. So I thought, ‘Wow. Okay. I’m in.'”

On this hot afternoon in June, Berry’s attention is drifting to a different baby — one who’s definitely from this planet. The 47-year-old actress has just retired to her trailer after shooting on location outside Los Angeles when the family nanny walks in with Berry’s very tired son, Maceo. The double-wide dressing room now serves as a satellite family room, since it’s where her 9-month-old son with husband Olivier Martinez, and Nahla, her 6-year-old daughter with ex-boyfriend Gabriel Aubry, routinely gather. ”My family has had to come to set far more than any of them have ever wanted to, but that’s the only way for me to see them.”

And yet they’re one of the chief reasons that Berry decided to explore the strange new world of Extant, boldly going where few Oscar-winning actresses have gone before. Berry is arguably the biggest movie star to ever make the transition to broadcast TV — a decision that had as much to do with her home life as it did with the quality (or lack thereof) of her film roles. ”I was being offered parts that I felt like I had done before,” she says. ”They weren’t exciting enough for me to leave my family for four months.”

Network TV wasn’t exactly uncharted territory for Berry. In 1989, the former Miss Teen All American made her acting debut in a short-lived Who’s the Boss? spin-off called Living Dolls for ABC. It lasted all of 12 episodes. ”It was about four models, and if we had a rank, I would’ve been number four. So I started every scene with ‘Hi, girls!’ And I ended every scene with ‘Come on, let’s go!”’ Even when her big-screen career heated up, Berry returned to TV for movies such as Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (which earned her an Emmy in 2000). Then, in 2002, she made history by becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actress, for Monster’s Ball. Great scripts should’ve been piling up on her desk. But she never became the go-to for prestige projects, and her film career racked up more high-profile misses (Gothika, Catwoman, Cloud Atlas) than hits (the X-Men franchise, Die Another Day). ”I realized some of the best writing, especially for women, was on television,” says Berry, who had fielded offers for the usual cop and doctor shows but was holding out for something more unusual. ”So I started putting my feelers out.”

Meanwhile, a 40-year-old playwright in Ohio decided to break into screenwriting by entering his sci-fi script, Extant, in an online competition. Fisher lost, but the spec eventually landed on the desk of Allysa Bauer, an assistant at the William Morris Endeavor agency. The 26-year-old showed it to her bosses, who then sent it to Steven Spielberg and Amblin TV. (Don’t worry, Bauer got a promotion.) When the project went on the market, CBS was already working with the studio on a second season of its sci-fi series Under the Dome, which gave the network a leg up in the negotiations despite heavy interest from other bidders including ABC, FX, Netflix, and Amazon. ”I thought that was very brave of CBS not to, you know, ask us to come up with a less esoteric title,” says Spielberg, who’s staying involved with the show through production by reading every script and brainstorming ideas with the writers.

Once the network bought Extant, CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler immediately thought of Berry, whom she had considered casting in the 2013 drama Hostages. ”I knew that if I approached her with something, it had to be unique and special,” recalls Tassler, who was so overwhelmed by the actress’ beauty during one meeting that she actually reached out to caress Berry’s face. ”The event series of the summer offers a unique opportunity for actors because of the [limited] time commitment.” When Extant was finally a go, Berry came on board with a few stipulations. Besides earning north of $100,000 an episode and a coexecutive-producing credit, the actress requested a closed set (on which President Obama’s daughter Malia was secretly a production assistant) and received an on-set bodyguard (for insurance purposes, and because she’s Halle freaking Berry).

Now 11 episodes into filming the 13-episode season, Berry admits the transition to TV has been harder than she expected — and not only because of the lightning-speed pace that goes with making a weekly show. ”It’s been a rude awakening, probably because I’m still up in the night, nursing. So I don’t get really good sleep,” she says.

At least one part of her life has gotten easier lately. The paparazzi who used to hound the actress and her children all but vanished in January, when a new bill in California made it illegal for photographers to take pictures of a celebrity’s child in a harassing manner. Berry personally testified about the issue to the state government in Sacramento with other actress moms such as Jennifer Garner. So far, she’s overjoyed with the results. ”Nobody sees me anymore! It’s changed our lives as a family and it’s changed my life as an artist,” Berry says with a smile. ”My children aren’t followed anymore. We don’t have paparazzi anywhere. My daughter is no longer afraid to go out of the house.”

Even so, the actress hasn’t completely escaped media scrutiny. Last month, she made headlines when a Los Angeles court ordered her to pay Aubry $16,000 per month to support their daughter. But Berry is surprisingly patient about the spotlight on her finances. ”I’m fair game, because it’s not about my kids,” she says. ”I understand that being a celebrity, they want to write about these things. I’m never complaining about that. I wasn’t even complaining about the paparazzi hounding me every day until I became a mother and I saw what it was doing to my daughter. I’m an adult, I can handle it. Little children, they can’t. They don’t deserve it.”

Although it has thriller and horror elements, Extant is first and foremost science fiction, with the spaceships, advanced computers, and alien life-forms to prove it. But the show’s version of the future is purposely subtle, featuring ultramodern cars, touch-screen mirrors, and a delightful outdoor trash compactor. ”We wanted to make it a relatable future without giving an exact year,” says Fisher. ”We thought it would be easier for people to just get immersed in the characters and the story rather than try to pick apart the reality of this world.”

The world in question involves a mysterious CEO named Hideki Yasumoto (Revenge‘s Hiroyuki Sanada) who has a secret alliance with Molly’s boss (Rectify‘s Michael O’Neill) at the International Space Exploration Agency. Meanwhile, Molly’s loyalties to the baby threaten her already tenuous relationship with Ethan and her husband, an ambitious man who sees no reason that robot tots can’t live side by side with human kids. Why does Hideki have a stake in Molly’s unborn baby? Is there a chance the infant won’t be a gurgling bundle of joy? And who — or what — impregnated her in space? Viewers will find out…eventually. ”We challenged the writers to let the story fold out in a more dramatic, slower way,” says Berry. ”We’re trying not to have too much exposition, trying to let the audience discover it as they go, like we do in film.”

There’s one thing even the star doesn’t know yet: what her offspring will look like. ”Molly’s baby is part of what makes Extant a compelling mystery story, and I think that will remain mysteriously shrouded until it has its walk-on,” says Spielberg. ”This little baby is so important,” admits Berry, who knows her future on TV — not to mention Extant‘s chance for a second season — is now inextricably linked to an unborn space child. ”There’s a reason it chose her body. This other life force realizes there’s something about us that they need to not become extinct. It can be the birth of a new life-form that is stronger than humans. It can be this new hybrid, this new entity.”

Suddenly the sci-fi gravity of the situation hits her. ”It’s crazy, right?” Berry laughs. ”But I’m living in this world now.” And we’ll all be watching back on Earth.

Special Delivery
A brief history of alien babies

Mork & Mindy, 1978-82
When Mork (Robin Williams) lays an egg, it hatches a bouncing baby Jonathan Winters.

Alien, 1979
The critter in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi hit was nicknamed ”chest burster.” No prizes for guessing why.

V, 1983
”It’s a girl!” said the nurse. ”IT’S A LIZARD BABY!” screamed every traumatized TV viewer.

Return of the Jedi, 1983
Darth Vader is gone! The Imperial fleet is finished! This baby Ewok is psyched.

Spaceballs, 1987
Mel Brooks’ sci-fi spoof included an Alien homage that was also a gifted ragtime musician.

Alien Nation, 1989
On the short-lived TV show, a male alien gave birth, giving new meaning to ”daddy’s girl.”

Coneheads, 1993
Nothing to see here, folks. Just a normal family with foot-tall craniums. They’re from France.

Men in Black, 1997
This octo-baby barfed all over Will Smith. And it never made another movie. Coincidence?

Prometheus, 2012
Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) thought she was sterile. Good news: She’s not. Bad news: She’s not.

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