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Kimberly Elise

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In her first minutes as Denzel Washington‘s wife, Kimberly Elise did what any woman would do: She screamed her head off. Her initial scene in 2002’s John Q called for her to raise a racket at their son’s softball game. “I felt so stupid and embarrassed, because Denzel’s there, and I’m yelling and screaming,” she recalls. “He was like, ‘You need to come and cheer for my kids!'”

Since then, Washington—who just reteamed with Elise in The Manchurian Candidate—has turned into her biggest cheerleader, proclaiming that she “maybe the best actress we have out there today.” Now Elise, 37, is getting a chance to prove him right with a high-impact turn in a low-budget drama. In Woman, Thou Art Loosed, based on a novel and play by African-American evangelical leader Bishop T.D. Jakes (who costars), Elise plays a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who seeks salvation after a stretch in prison. “When she’s playing a role, she puts that person on like you’re putting on a coat,” says Jakes. The Minneapolis-raised Elise slipped into her first major acting job, a Wendy’s commercial, to help pay for college. After giving birth to daughters AjaBleu, 14, and Butterfly, 6, with photographer husband Maurice Oldham, 45, she hit it big as Oprah Winfrey’s daughter in 1998’s Beloved (she calls Winfrey “a great friend”). Next year, she’ll lighten up in the comedy-drama Diary of a Mad Black Woman. “I don’t have an agenda,” she says. “I do what feels right to my spirit.”