In 2016, she played the President of the United States in the science fiction film Independence Day: Resurgence, and starred in the Epix political comedy Graves.
Ward was born in Meridian, Mississippi, to Annie Kate (née Boswell), a housewife who died of ovarian cancer on February 12, 2002, and Granberry Holland "G.H." Ward, Jr., an electrical engineer who died on January 13, 2009. Ward is the eldest of four children with a sister, Jenna, and two brothers, Brock and Granberry (Berry), III.
Ward attended the University of Alabama, where she was Homecoming Queen, a Crimson Tide cheerleader, and joined Chi Omega sorority. She double-majored in fine art and advertising.
While working in New York City as a storyboard artist for multimedia presentations, Ward began modeling to supplement her income. She was recruited by the Wilhelmina agency and was soon featured in television commercials promoting Maybelline cosmetics. Ward eventually moved to California to pursue acting and landed her first film role in the Burt Reynolds vehicle, The Man Who Loved Women, released in 1983. Her first regular role in a television drama series, as a socialite on Dennis Weaver's short-lived CBS series, Emerald Point N.A.S., followed in the same year. Ward continued to land guest roles in both television and movies throughout the 1980s, most notably opposite Tom Hanks in 1986's Nothing in Common. In 1991 she was cast as the bohemian alcoholic Teddy Reed on Sisters, for which she received her first Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 1994. She portrayed Helen Kimball, the wife of Dr. Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford), in The Fugitive, one of the top films of 1993.
Ward won a CableACE Award for her portrayal of the late television journalist Jessica Savitch in the 1995 TV movie Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story. Almost Golden remains Lifetime's most watched TV movie to date.
In 1995, Ward was passed over for a Bond girl role, learning that even though then-Bond Pierce Brosnan was 42, the casting director said "What we really want is Sela, but Sela ten years ago". In response, she developed and produced a documentary, The Changing Face of Beauty, about American obsession with youth and its effect on women. Later on, Ward would voice the part of former model turned villain Page Monroe in an episode ("Mean Seasons") of The New Batman/Superman Adventures, which focused primarily on the media's obsession with youth.
Ward succeeded Candice Bergen as commercial spokesperson for Sprint's long distance telephone service from 1999 until 2002. She also appeared on Frasier as supermodel/zoologist Kelly Easterbrook in the fifth season opener ("Frasier's Imaginary Friend"). When she read for the role of Lily Brooks Manning on the series Once and Again, its creators (Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz of thirtysomething fame) initially deemed Ward "too beautiful" for the average single mother to identify with. Ward received her second lead actress Emmy and a Golden Globe Award.
In 2004, she played the role of a private investigator in the television movie Suburban Madness. The same year, she also appeared in the movie The Day After Tomorrow with Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhall. In 2005, she began a recurring role in the Fox dramatic series House as Stacy Warner, the hospital's attorney and formidable ex-partner of the protagonist, Dr. Gregory House (played by Hugh Laurie). In 2006, Ward's character was written off the show. She made her last guest appearance in the House series finale titled "Everybody Dies" which aired on May 21, 2012, as one of House's hallucinations and an attendee at his funeral.
Ward was originally offered both the role of Megan Donner on CSI: Miami and Susan Mayer on Desperate Housewives, but turned both down. Ward was reluctant to commit to another lead role in an hour-long series because of the time away from her family it would require. Although she was on a brief hiatus from television she continued to appear in feature films. In 2006 she starred opposite Kevin Costner in The Guardian and in 2009 starred in the thriller The Stepfather.
In July 2010, Ward signed on to star in the police drama CSI: NY, at the start of the seventh season. Ward remained on the show until the end of the ninth and final season in February 2013.
Ward appeared as newswoman Sharon Schieber in Gone Girl (2014), and co-starred in Independence Day: Resurgence, released June 2016, in which she played the President of the United States, President Lanford. She also plays the leading role alongside Nick Nolte in the upcoming political comedy, Graves.
On May 23, 1992, Ward married entrepreneur Howard Elliott Sherman. They have two children.
After meeting two foster children during a holiday trip home to Mississippi in 1997, Ward decided to meet a broader need for abused and neglected children by initiating and partially funding the creation of a permanent group home and emergency shelter, as well as transition houses. Hope Village is housed on a 30-acre (120,000 m2) property once used as a Masonic-owned and operated orphanage, the Hope Village for Children opened in Ward's hometown of Meridian in January 2002 and is intended to serve as a pilot for a nationwide network of similar shelters. Hope Village currently has a capacity of 44 residents and serves an average of 200 children per year.
A portion of 22nd Avenue in Meridian (from 6th Street to the Interstate 20 highway interchange) has been named the "Sela Ward Parkway" in her honor.
In 2002, Ward published her autobiography, Homesick: A Memoir, through HarperCollins' ReganBooks imprint.