Angela Bassett never dreamed she would play Rosa Parks — the civil rights activist who inspired the legendary 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott — when she sat next to her at 1994's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As the actress tells TV Guide Online: "I guess I was just so in awe of meeting her that I didn't have the vision to see down the road that far!"

To prepare for her role in The Rosa Parks Story — airing on Feb. 24 at 9 pm/ET on CBS — Bassett studied film footage and Parks's memoir, Quiet Strength. But she says the very private 89-year-old icon keeps parts of her life a mystery. "Some things you aren't able to find out about her," she explains, "and it wasn't really important. For example, she loved children so much, but never had [any] of her own. And she never shares in her autobiography why that is.

"I never asked," she adds. "[Parks] was of a generation where you didn't tell all that you knew. You held certain personal things close."

The recent Oscar nominations of Halle Berry, Will Smith and Denzel Washington are sure indicators that black actors' lot is improving. But Bassett — herself an Oscar nominee as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It — says recognition from the Academy is tough to get without good parts and a more diverse body of voters.

Says the 43-year-old Yale grad: "You can't get nominated by your peers if there's not a role that's big enough, varied enough, rich enough, deep enough, complex enough." She also suggests that "you have to look at the cross section of those who vote. There's not a great deal of diversity in the voting ranks. I think that has a great deal to do with who wins and what wins."

"It's a wonderful capstone," Bassett concedes, "but it has nothing to do with the journey or the work, really. It would be really nice — it's really nice for whomever wins — but it shouldn't be the be-all or the end-all... and I don't think it really changes anything. If you're able to do [lots of] varied, wonderful, rich characters over the course of your career, you'd rather have that than an Oscar."