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December 11, 2014 at 05:35 PM EST

Jennifer Aniston has been to the Golden Globes before. In fact, she took home a top prize in 2003. But that Best Actress win was for her role as Rachel Green, the Friends character that made Aniston one of the most famous and beloved actresses on the planet. In Cake, the small indie that earned her a Best Actress in a Drama nomination this morning, people might not even recognize her.

Aniston plays Claire, an angry, scar-faced woman who suffers from chronic pain that drives her to irritable and irrational extremes. When a member of her chronic-pain group (Anna Kendrick) commits suicide, she finds herself drawn into the shattered life of the widower (Sam Worthington). To see Aniston tackle such an unglamorous role—she eschewed makeup and wore a backbrace to limit Claire’s movement—that so contradicts the America’s Sweetheart image, evokes the reaction of audiences when Mary Tyler Moore played an unfeeling mother in Ordinary People. “Daniel Barnz the director has said that, and it’s what I’m so grateful and thankful for about him, that he did sort of take the chance,” says Aniston. “I begged and pleaded and promised I would go to the moon and back with him. It was an unexpected way to go and he believed in me.”

Aniston has played against type before, like in 2002’s The Good Girl. But her role in Cake, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, was beyond anything she’d tackled in that regard before. Normally, when you hire Jennifer Aniston for a movie, you want “Jennifer Aniston”—her famous face, her smile, her hair. Aniston had bumped into those superficial demands before, recently in Horrible Bosses. “I wanted [Dr. Julia] to have long dark hair, like Brigitte Bardot but brunette. And they were saying, ‘But they’re not going to know who you are,'” she says. “But obviously in this case, that was not an issue. We made it for $3 and we were just this little movie that could. We were focused on portraying her as honestly and truthfully as it possibly could be told. Making it bulletproof. And for me, as an actor it was such a great exercise in my craft. Being able to sort of mine a character and unearth her.”

Aniston, who also was nominated for Best Actress by the Screen Actors Guild, has now elbowed her way into the Oscar conversation. Cake will get a qualifying run later this month and open more widely on Jan. 23. “I’m just humbled,” she says. “It’s just all happening so fast and so beautifully. The Globes are a big fun party and it’s so fun to celebrate with your peers. My friend Emily [Blunt] is nominated so I’m excited for her. We’re just going to have a fun night.”

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