Despite Hollywood's attempts to let go of gender and race clich&#233s, Angela Bassett confesses that she was shocked the powers that be had the open mind to cast her as Robert De Niro's girlfriend in the heist flick The Score (opening Friday).

"I never thought I would have the chance in my life to work with De Niro," admits Bassett, best known for playing strong-willed heroines such as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It and the fictional Stella Payne in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. "[I guess] I've gotten past that stage where I could [only] say, 'Mr. De Niro, Joe Blow is on the line for you,' as his secretary."

Because Bassett's role — a flight attendant who inspires her safe-cracking boyfriend (De Niro) to retire from his risky profession after one last job — was never written for a black woman, she says it makes sense that the race card was never played. Still, the 42-year-old thesp concedes that when it comes to interracial couplings on the big screen, The Score remains the exception, not the rule.

"America has the history that it has; it's deeply ingrained," Bassett says. "But we have a lot of young people who either don't know the history or they're just loving whomever they want to. The hip-hop generation could care less."

"I cast Angela because she's a great actress," adds Score helmer Frank Oz. "And I think we both like the fact that she's black and Bob's white, and [their relationship in the film] has nothing to do with white or black."

Not only is Bassett the only person of color in the movie — which also stars Edward Norton and Marlon Brando — she's also the only female. "I got a lot of attention," she laughs. "It was nice!"