Kerry Washington

Scandal star Kerry Washington was on stage at Saturday Night Live performing her monologue as the host of the Nov. 2 episode when it hit her: She was in the middle of an unforgettable moment. "To make those jokes about my character and Scandal on another network and have [executive producers Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers] in the audience, sitting next to my mom and dad and my cousins...I had the time of my life," she says.

It's been an amazing year for Washington, whose star has risen along with the meteoric ratings of Scandal. The ABC drama now averages 12.5 million viewers a week, up a whopping 51 percent from last year. It also ranks among the Top 3 broadcast-network dramas in the key 18-to-49 demographic, up 63 percent from last year, making it the biggest year-to-year gainer of any returning broadcast show.

Washington also nabbed Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for her portrayal of Washington, D.C.-based crisis manager Olivia Pope, and earlier this year she was voted favorite actress in TV Guide Magazine's Fan Favorite Awards. "I'm really grateful for our fans," Washington says. "It's why we still live-tweet every week."

Rhimes says Washington sets a positive tone for Scandal's cast and crew. "There's something about her ability to galvanize a set and keep everybody in good spirits, even when it's 2 in the morning," she says. "Kerry is a loving, giving, inclusive person who cares about everybody."

Indeed, Washington says she's "delighted" but "humbled" by being named TV Guide Magazine's TV Star of the Year, among the other accolades that have come her way. "You're still in the work for so much of the year that you don't really have time to process it," she says.

As she navigates stardom and critical acclaim, Washington takes cues from former costars, including Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker, who handle fame "with a lot of grace," she says. "The reward for me is that I get to play this woman. Everything else is gravy. What I do at home with my binder and my highlighter and pens, having that homework and that depth of character to explore and play — that, to me, is the best prize ever."

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!