Jason Merritt/Getty
September 08, 2014 08:00 PM

She’s been called America’s sweetheart, but Jennifer Aniston swept into the Toronto International Film Festival with a warts-and-all star turn that got her a standing ovation – and immediate awards buzz.

In Cake, Aniston, 45, plays a woman suffering from addiction, rage issues and suicidal depression after a tragic accident leaves her scarred inside and out. It’s hardly the romantic comedy she’s known for.

With greasy hair, no makeup and a fire she’s never before displayed on screen, Aniston gives a riveting performance that brought the film festival audience to its feet at its Toronto premiere Monday.

“It’s awesome and liberating to let that all go,” Aniston said of her makeunder for the role. “And see yourself looking like that on a 50-foot screen.”

Aniston – who’s engaged to fellow actor Justin Theroux – talked of moving stiffly and with great discomfort, aided by a back brace, to play a woman suffering from chronic pain caused by a car accident.

If it looked painful, it’s because she was in pain, she says, adding, “But I’m back now – it took a while.”

She also said she spent time with a close friend and stunt double, who became addicted to prescription drugs after a boating accident, to prepare for the part.

The film, directed by Daniel Barnz, costars Adriana Barraza, Sam Worthington and Anna Kendrick, and it was warmly received at Toronto’s historic Elgin theater.

“Oh my God, that’s so sweet,” said a visibly moved Aniston, looking radiant in a short black cocktail dress and nothing like her character, to an audience member who lauded her bravery for playing a character who is unattractive inside and out.

Barnz called her “the most courageous actress I know” for leaving her vanity behind.

If the applause at Toronto is any guide, that risk may well pay off at the upcoming awards season.

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