From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
She was a sleep-deprived new mom and getting back to work for the first time since winning an Oscar. Feeling the pressure? Not Sandra Bullock. At an early meeting in L.A. last fall for her movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Bullock focused on putting the boy playing her son, 9-year-old Thomas Horn, at ease. "The first thing Thomas said to her was, 'I can't believe I'm acting with the biggest movie star in the world!'" recalls director Stephen Daldry. Bullock cracked a joke, and "within 20 minutes they were roaring with laughter. She made him feel like he was with one of his best friends. It's one of Sandy's great skills."

So is triumphing over tough times. After keeping a low profile through a year of personal and professional change, Bullock, 47, looks like a superstar who is again ready to shine. She's managed to navigate a series of emotional milestones: passing the one-year mark of her divorce from her infamously unfaithful husband, Jesse James; celebrating the first anniversary this month of her official adoption of 19-month-old son Louis Bardo; and returning to acting with two dramas, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Gravity. "She has endured a lot," says a Bullock source, "and she has moved forward with a lot of dignity."

Bullock's new life as a single working parent is one she is building on her own terms, and one in which motherhood and career are balanced in sweet synchronicity. "Her No. 1 priority is her son," says the source. "No. 2 is work." As for a love life, the busy star laughs off romance rumors about her swoon-worthy male friends. On Aug. 1, she made a surprise appearance at the L.A. premiere of longtime friend Ryan Reynolds's movie The Change-Up; the crowd cheered as Reynolds dashed back down the red carpet to embrace her. Bullock "looked absolutely amazing and so happy," says an observer. But she has dismissed any hookup gossip, declaring that Reynolds "is not my lovah...I don't get his loving after dark." The steadfast friends "are like brother and sister," a source confirms. Bullock and costar George Clooney were photographed looking chummy on the London set of Gravity, but their friendship goes back to the years when they were both starting out in Hollywood; back then, Clooney and Tom Cruise once tricked her into jumping into a pool at a Hollywood party, Bullock joked at the Oscars last year.

Self-deprecation and "being in on the joke, being one of the guys," is "really part of who she is," says a source who has worked with Bullock-and her sense of humor helped considerably as she bounced back from the end of her almost five-year marriage in March 2010. "She amazes me and everyone else with how she is able to keep her sunny-and funny-ways about her," says the source. "I'm sure she gets angry, but she doesn't stay in that place." An intense schedule filming across continents-not to mention overseeing her production company and Austin restaurants Bess Bistro and Walton's Fancy and Staple, and aiding Warren Easton Charter High School in New Orleans-has kept her schedule full. She shot Extremely Loud in New York City, then went straight to London to make Gravity. "She was very keen to get back to work," says Extremely Loud director Daldry. "She threw herself in with her usual enthusiasm and energy, and she was very relaxed. She had little Louis with her, and it was a very familial environment on-set." Bullock "was glowing," adds costar Reagan Leonard. "She was really in her glory, pulling the project along." Talking with her Blind Side costar Quinton Aaron earlier this year, she shared her advice for success. "She told me, 'Always stay humble, always be there for whoever you're working with on- and off-camera, and always make good choices,'" says Aaron.

Sharing her life with now-toddler Louis has made her success all the sweeter. "He is the center of her life, the most important thing for her," says a source. In New York City, her "Cajun cookie" (a term of endearment she's used for Louis) got to explore the quiet Vesuvio Playground near Bullock's SoHo townhouse and even paid a visit to the venerable Manhattan store Henri Bendel. "Louis was flirting with the stylists and giving kisses to everyone," says an observer. Bullock showed off photos of Louis to friends before she and her sister Gesine Bullock-Prado caught the Tony-winning musical The Book of Mormon, a rare public night out for the star. She was also spotted dining with a friend at the swanky steak restaurant the Lion in Greenwich Village, wearing black and looking "fabulous," says a fellow dinner guest. "It was a fun night."

When she moved on to London, Bullock stayed even further out of the spotlight as she worked long hours filming Gravity, playing an astronaut who alone survives a disaster in space and must find a way to return to her child on Earth. "I think the reason she has been so stealth is that since day one of bringing Louis home, she has been extremely protective," says a source. "She wants to protect him; it's primal and basic. She is not out and about a lot because the bubble she has created is vitally important to her. She knows the first two years are very important to a child, and she wants to give him the best."

As her little guy grows up-and the star stays firmly focused on the future-people who know Bullock say she's ready to turn the page: new career moves, new travels, maybe even a new romance. "She has so much to offer," says a Bullock source. "She has left the baggage of last year behind, and she's not carrying it with her. She is ready for the next chapter of her life."

  • Contributors:
  • Reagan Alexander/L.A.,
  • Jennifer Garcia/L.A.,
  • Mary Green/New York City,
  • Lesley Messer/New York City.