Jennifer Aniston won an Emmy in 2002 as Outstanding Leading Actress in Friends and went on to morph into a big commercial movie star, but critical acclaim as a dramatic actress has not come her way—until now. Sure, she did well-received indies such as The Good Girl in between her comedic hits. But her latest, Cake, really takes the, uh, cake as a true breakthrough. Sans makeup and with scars on her face, Aniston plays a woman suffering from chronic pain after a tragic accident, and nails it. When she won a standing ovation after the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Aniston broke down in tears. She truly had arrived at a new place in her career, and her life.

Did the warm response in Toronto really blow you away?

It certainly did—just showing the movie at all. It was the first time we’ve shown it to more than eight people at a time. The real terrifying moment happened right before they let the film roll. To get that reaction was quite stunning and moving.

The script was in a screenwriting contest that director Daniel Barnz was judging. What about it resonated with you?

I just really connected to Claire and the beautifully layered character that she was and this excruciating, unimaginable trauma she is forced to walk through, to see her take the journey and discover that she in fact wants to continue living… Also, the reason I think I fell so in love with her was her insanely acerbic wit, this kind of sharp, razor-tongue kind of quality about her that I found endearing.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that dealt with chronic pain before. What was the challenge in bringing that across?

Well, I had a good six weeks of doing some intense homework. Daniel and I have a mutual friend who is a stuntwoman and she was in a horrific accident. She literally lived through 22 surgeries and excruciating pain and also became addicted to pain meds, as a lot of people do in this country. So I spent a lot of time talking with her and with doctors. With Daniel, we just basically tried to figure out what was the accident, where was the injury, what was shattered, what was broken, how would that manifest itself in the way I would walk or the way I would even speak.

This is an independently made film. Did you have much time to rehearse or prepare for it?

We actually had more time to rehearse than we did to shoot. We were lucky enough to shoot in Los Angeles. Because Daniel and I live in the same city, we were able to get together for quite a few weeks before we were shooting and really honed (my character). We made sure to get the scars correct because that was another thing—the camera literally is in your face, so we went through a couple tests. Our amazing dear friend, Scott Stoddard—who’s a special effects makeup artist—gifted us his time for zero cents.

You’ve made several indies and, of course, several big studio films. What do you like doing best?

Different things access different parts of my brain and excite me in different ways. This was certainly more digging deep into my toolbox.

So you really don’t look at it differently when you approach a character, whether it’s a comedy or a drama?

No. You just approach it depending on the part of your brain that needs to be accessed more. I’m up for whatever. I love it all. I really do. Physically, this movie was trying on my body. I had a lot of pinched nerves just from being in that physical space for five weeks straight, but I missed it when it was over. We had so much fun together. We were like a little theater group.

How do you make the leap from what we’ve seen so much of you in—glamorous and comedic roles—to something like this?

The leap was not hard. What was hard was finding the (film) that I fell in love with and then finding the director who thought it was an unexpected way to cast me. That was the hardest part because you’re right—I am seen in a certain light, even though I have done smaller movies and other things. So, yeah, I did have to fight a little bit harder and I had to flex a little bit more muscle to allow myself to get into the part. But I’m willing to fight the fight and show that there’s more to me and to a lot of other actors. You get put into a stereotype and you have to bang a little louder to allow your other creative parts to be shown.

You get pigeon-holed sometimes…

Well, I think it’s also from being on a television show for 10 years—that’s in your living room week after week, and now day after day (in syndication). You really do have to kind of run far, far away. But it’s OK. I don’t mind that. I’m up for that challenge, and that’s what excites me… I would be lying if I said in taking this on, there wasn’t a part of me that knew I was taking a risk. I knew I had to do it for myself and if it was going to fail and fall flat on its face, then so be it, but I had to. I feel like you have to be brave. You have to be bold. Don’t stay small.

 Jennifer Aniston photographed by Mark Mann