There's a game Kerry Washington likes to play when strangers approach her on the street. "I guess what they're going to say they recognize me from," the 34-year-old actress explains. If it's a teenage guy? "You're the blind girl from Fantastic Four!" A European? "It's always The Last King of Scotland." A lesbian? "She Hate Me!"—for its Sapphic sex scene, of course. The one performance that everyone recognizes her for is the long-suffering wife in Ray. "That's the wild card in Uno," she says with a laugh.
Washington credits her ability to play a diverse array of roles to an upbringing that had her shuttling between worlds. She grew up middle-class in the Bronx (watching neighbor J.Lo ascend to stardom) while commuting to an elite private school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Though she went on to study theater in college, she didn't expect to have a Hollywood acting career—"I wasn't invested in the fame part." But helped by her luminous eyes and approachable beauty, she quickly began amassing movie offers. Despite a filmography peppered with lightweight, "wife of" parts (as in next month's A Thousand Words, opposite Eddie Murphy), lately Washington has gravitated to meatier roles that explore race—including in David Mamet's play Race and Tyler Perry's film For Colored Girls. This year she'll star in Quentin Tarantino's revisionist romp Django Unchained, which promises to do for the antebellum South what Inglourious Basterds did for World War II.
But first, Washington will come to the small screen in ABC's new political series Scandal, as a Beltway crisis manager who steers clients through the minefields of politics, media, and the law. As a black woman holding her own in the halls of power, the character (based on the PR guru who advised Monica Lewinsky, Michael Vick, and Wesley Snipes) offers an unexpected look at race and gender in the 21st century. "I'm really fascinated with how people become who they are," says Washington, whose own story is still being written.