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Thewlis, David (1963-)

Actor, Director

Main image of Thewlis, David (1963-)

Despite making a huge impact relatively early in his career as the misanthropic, morally bankrupt but compellingly charismatic Johnny, anti-hero of Mike Leigh's controversial Naked (1993), David Thewlis has avoided typecasting, and moves between leading and supporting parts with ease. He was born Daniel Wheeler in Blackpool on 20th March 1963, and attended the Guildhall School of Drama before making his TV debut in the sitcom Valentine Park (ITV, 1985). He went on to play small roles in high-profile series such as Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1985) and The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986), before being offered a more significant part in Alan Clarke's Road (BBC, 1987).

His first big-screen leading role was opposite Clive Owen in the little-seen Vroom (d. Beeban Kidron, 1988), and he then starred in Paul Greengrass's anti-Falklands drama Resurrected (1989), playing a presumed-dead soldier who returns to Britain. He also collaborated with Mike Leigh on Life Is Sweet (1990), in which he played Jane Horrocks' lover, licking chocolate sauce off her naked body. He continued playing low-key supporting roles in films such as Damage (UK/France, d. Louis Malle, 1992) and The Trial (d. David Hugh Jones, 1993), before his performance as Johnny in Naked established him as one of the great actors of his generation. He won best actor at Cannes and at the Evening Standard film awards, amongst many other accolades.

Perhaps conscious that too many parts along similar lines could limit his career, he returned to supporting roles, albeit generally in higher-profile projects. He was the title character's saintly owner in Black Beauty (USA/UK, d. Caroline Thompson, 1994), a convincingly ramshackle Paul Verlaine (opposite Leonardo DiCaprio's Rimbaud) in Total Eclipse (UK/France/Belgium/Italy, d. Agniezska Holland, 1995), a pioneering doctor in Restoration (USA/UK, d. Michael Hoffman, 1995) and a scenery-chewing evil king in Dragonheart (US, 1996). An unfortunate experience with The Island of Dr Moreau (US, 1996) led him denouncing Hollywood filmmaking and returning to quirkier films, such as a small cameo in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski (USA/UK, 1998) and the lead in the underrated Divorcing Jack (d. David Caffrey, 1998).

Despite working with major directors such as Bernardo Bertolucci (Besieged, Italy/UK, 1998), Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven, Spain/UK/Germany/US, 2005) and Terrence Malick (The New World, US, 2005), he continued to be at his best in smaller projects. He was very impressive in Gangster No. 1 (UK/Germany/Ireland, d. Paul McGuigan, 2000), where his effortlessly suave gangland kingpin was neatly contrasted by Paul Bettany's thuggish wannabe. He also played the servant Clov in Samuel Beckett's Endgame (Channel 4, 2000), opposite Michael Gambon's tyrannical Hamm. Amongst his larger-scale projects, his sensitive and oddly moving appearance as the father-figure Professor Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (UK/US, d. Alfonso CuarĂ³n, 2004) was highly appealing, while he stole Basic Instinct 2 (Germany/Spain/UK/USA, d. Michael Caton-Jones, 2006) with a hilariously lugubrious performance as the stoic detective. He has also directed, written and starred in an acclaimed comedy-drama, Cheeky (UK/France, 2003), clearly showing the influence of his mentor Mike Leigh.

Alexander Larman

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Life is Sweet (1990)Life is Sweet (1990)

Mike Leigh comedy about a dysfunctional restaurant-owning family

Thumbnail image of Little Dorrit (1987)Little Dorrit (1987)

Ambitious two-film adaptation of one of Dickens' greatest works

Thumbnail image of Naked (1993)Naked (1993)

Mike Leigh's furious dissection of early '90s London

Thumbnail image of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1990)Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1990)

BBC dramatisation of Jeanette Winterson's autobiographical novel

Thumbnail image of Singing Detective, The (1986)Singing Detective, The (1986)

Controversial Potter series blending sex, songs and skin disease

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