After earning her SAG card with the 1994 ABC Afterschool Special Magical Make-Over, Washington scores her first film role in Our Song, about three high school students who form a bond through marching band. "I gave myself a year to make it in acting," the actress tells Glamour of landing the part, which hit screens two years after her graduation from George Washington University. In 2001, she makes her mainstream breakthrough in Save the Last Dance, a teen romance starring Julia Stiles.
After portraying Ray Charles's wife Della Bea Robinson opposite Jamie Foxx in Ray, Washington says yes to actor boyfriend David Moscow's proposal. A year later, she appears on the cover of InStyle Weddings.
Washington stars as Angelina Jolie's right-hand woman in the spy drama Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which pits Jolie against onscreen husband Brad Pitt. The film is a box office success, grossing more than $185 million, and Washington follows it up with another big budget film, Fantastic Four. The actress reprises her role, that of Alicia Masters, the blind love interest of The Thing, in 2007's Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
The star signs on to be a spokeswoman for beauty brand L'Oreal Paris, "a company that has historically represented so many different kinds of women with different kinds of skin color," she says. "L'Oreal is so much about supporting women, helping women feel good about themselves, and it's great to feel like I can be a part of that."
Three years after getting engaged, Washington and Moscow call it quits. "No one has to feel sorry for me. I'm not lonely. I have my dog," she tells PEOPLE in July, adding that she's enjoying dating again. "It has all been a lot of fun so far. I'm having a blast meeting people."
Deemed her "most daring role" yet by New York magazine, Washington makes her Broadway debut in David Mamet's Race, playing the legal assistant caught in between two superiors (David Alan Grier, James Spader) as they debate whether to represent a white man accused of assaulting a black woman. "I didn't really see how it would be possible [to be in one]," Washington says of starring in a Mamet production, "but I feel really excited to be alive at this point."
Washington lands the role of a lifetime as Olivia Pope, the head of a Washington, D.C., crisis management firm that specializes in cleaning up political messes, on the ABC drama Scandal. The role makes her the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years and earns her a 2013 Emmy nomination for best actress. "Olivia deals with a negotiation of power that I think is unique to the modern woman," Washington tells Elle. "She's phenomenally successful, able to control her world and make things happen with clarity and force in her professional life."
Washington once again plays wife to Jamie Foxx in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, in which she is abducted by a plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) and her husband must set out to rescue her. "I can see how it's not particularly feminist to play the princess in the tower, waiting to be saved," she tells Elle. "But as a black woman–we've never been afforded that luxury. There was no man coming to save you; it wasn't part of the story. In some ways, this telling is a statement of empowerment."
Having dated for three years in secret, Washington weds now-retired football player Nnmamdi Asomougha in Hailey, Idaho. Weeks later, when commenting on her Emmy nomination, the actress says, "I don't talk about my personal life in the press, but I will say I'm really happy. I'm blessed in all areas of my life."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Everett; Jamie McCarthy/Wireimage; Everett; Michael Loccisano/Filmmagic; Brian Killian/Wireimage; Randy Holmes/ABC/Getty; Everett; Jonathan Leibson/Getty