September 26, 2005 12:00 PM

Gwyneth Paltrow found herself in the strangest place Sept. 12: A red carpet. The actress hit the Toronto Film Festival for her first premiere event since her daughter Apple was born in May 2004. Looking chic in Chanel and Gucci at the opening of her new drama Proof, she seemed to glow in the spotlight. “It’s lovely,” she told PEOPLE about her return. “It feels exciting, and it’s a break from being a mother every day.”

Only a few years ago, Paltrow needed a break from premieres, not parenting. But everything has changed since her December 2003 marriage to Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin, 28, and their daughter’s subsequent arrival. “Ever since I had her, my priorities have changed a lot,” says Paltrow, who turns 33 on Sept. 27. “And it’s very difficult for me, the idea that I would miss her say something or miss being there every day.” The actress was, in fact, pregnant with Apple while filming Proof, in which she plays a mathematician dealing with the death of her father (Anthony Hopkins). The loss of her own father, Bruce Paltrow, who died of pneumonia and throat cancer complications in 2002, also weighed heavily on her mind during production of Proof. “I got an insight into the finality of death and grief,” she says, “which really helped me understand how to get inside her head.”

After taking time off to start a family, she has now returned to work directing a short film (see box) and doing small roles in the upcoming Running with Scissors and Love and Other Disasters. Back on the job, “I was just torn not being the person who put my daughter to sleep every night,” she says. That means she won’t take on a larger role until “a time where it will be convenient for my family.” Paltrow’s decision isn’t surprising, says her Proof and Shakespeare in Love director John Madden. “You always had to see Gwyneth and her family to make complete sense of her,” says Madden. “That’s who she is. She now has a family of her own, and I think that’s completed her.”

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