Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each week, we profile women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.
London (CNN) -- If ever there was a costume that erased gender, it's got to be an astronaut's suit. Big, bulky, with a uniform shape and reflective mask, it's pretty hard to tell whether the person inside is male, female, or Ham the chimpanzee.
So when Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut hurtling through space in new blockbuster "Gravity," one of the only clues she's even a woman is the sound of her hysterical gasping: "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!"
For 49-year-old Bullock, playing the lead role of Dr Ryan Stone in the thriller which premieres in Britain this week, this is not a female action film -- it's a "human action film."
And if it were up to her, the rest of Hollywood would stop making a distinction between the two.
"There is a female and male in it. The point of view is everyone's point of view, it just so happens that I have a female body and I fortunately got to do the part," she told CNN in an interview at the London Film Festival screening.
"We were very conscious to not make it about the sex -- we made it about the situation and the adversities, rather than 'this is a woman in adversity' or a 'man in adversity.' Anyone can put themselves in my character's situation and feel exactly the same."
Indeed, the infinite blackness of space, and indistinct white uniforms worn by Bullock and co-star George Clooney, create a unique environment not just free from gravity -- but traditional gender cues.
It's quite literally a world away from some of Bullock's best known roles -- the love interest of terrorist-busting cop Keanu Reeves in 1994 thriller "Speed," the tom boy FBI agent turned bombshell in 2000 chick flick "Miss Congeniality," or the executive trying to marry her assistant in 2009 rom-com "The Proposal."
Her 2010 hit "The Blind Side" -- in which she plays a southern mom who adopts a black teenager -- earned her an Academy Award for best actress, also becoming the first film with a sole female lead to take over $200 million at the U.S. box office.
Yet the day before she scored the highest accolade in cinema, Bullock was picking up the Golden Raspberry Award for worst actress in 2010 comedy "All About Steve."
She is one of the few actors to accept the prize in person, revealing a charming ability to not take herself too seriously in a notoriously cutthroat industry.
"They said that nobody went to see this film, but there's over 700 members here and that means the majority of the 700 voted," she joked at the time.
Mom's the word
While Forbes this year named Bullock the most marketable celebrity in the world, with annual earnings of $14 million, it seems her biggest priority right now is not career -- but family.
When it was time for the 2010 Oscar after-party, the best actress-winner instead opted to go home to her newly adopted son Louis -- whom she named after New Orleans jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, also from her child's hometown.
It is perhaps a sign of Bullock's strength of character that she continued with the adoption process after splitting with husband and TV mechanic Jesse James, after his infidelities were exposed in the press.
Today, mother and son have eschewed the bright lights of Los Angeles for a home in Austin, Texas, with Bullock admitting: "I feel happier, better and younger now than I did 10 years ago."
Singing her praises
Bullock grew up in a house of music, her German mother Helga and American father John, both opera enthusiasts who taught singing.
She and younger sister Gesine lived in Washington D.C, in a home constantly visited by their parents' artist friends. When Bullock announced that she wanted to pursue an acting career, her family was supportive, though realistic about the hard slog ahead.
Moving to New York and supporting herself with various hospitality jobs, Bullock was the ripe old age of 30 --practically over-the-hill for a woman starting out in Hollywood -- when she starred in breakthrough film "Speed."
Brave new world
And while she's since starred in numerous box office hits, you get the feeling "Gravity" is a film that pushes her beyond the chick-flick persona she's arguably better known for.
"It took away anything I knew as an actor," she said, referring to Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón's decision to shoot the actors in 12-wire harnesses, to recreate zero-gravity.
The harnesses were either operated by puppeteers, or attached to rotating rigs. All of which took place inside a cube covered in thousands of LED lights to simulate the alternating glow of the sun. Visual effects artists added the spacesuits later.
"It left me closed in a box for 10 hours a day, with no one to talk to, and no life form around me," said Bullock. It was the first of its kind, it was a prototype, they invented it. They didn't know if it would work until the day we got into it.
"As alienating and frustrating as it was, being as cumbersome as it was, you knew you were a part of something that no one else had done before. You just sucked it up, and as crabby as I was most days, it worked. I didn't want to be very comfortable, my character wasn't comfortable in space."
Judging by "Gravity's" phenomenal box office sales -- so far taking over $400 million worldwide -- the rest of us are also lining up to see America's sweetheart outside her comfort zone.