The second of three children, David Thewlis grew up in an apartment above his family's combination toy store and wallpaper shop. He received his training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A veteran of the London stage and English television (Prime Suspect 3), Thewlis found his particular cinematic niche as the antihero of director Mike Leigh's Naked (1993). From the moment that Thewlis, playing an indigent from Manchester, showed up unannounced at the doorstep of his old girlfriend and immediately proceeded to verbally trash everyone in sight, the audience knew it wasn't in for a Noël Coward revival. The result of Thewlis's antisocial screen behavior was the unqualified praise of discriminating moviegoers, not to mention awards from the Cannes jury, the New York Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics.
He went on to demonstrate his versatility in a number of diverse roles, including Paul Verlaine in 1995's Total Eclipse, an animated earthworm in James and the Giant Peach (1996), a mountaineer in Seven Years in Tibet (1997, a role for which the actor was subsequently banned from entering China), and an expatriate British composer living in Rome in Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged in 1998. Also that year, Thewlis could be seen doing a brief but hilarious turn as a giggling conceptual artist in The Big Lebowski. As rare as it is for an actor to possess the versatility needed to alternate between such adult-oriented fare as director Mike Leigh's Naked and such innocent fun as James and the Giant Peach, Thewlis could be as effective in the former as he was endearing in the latter. Following a chilling performance as the leader of a London gang in the 2002 crime drama Gangster No. 1, Thewlis switched gears somewhat to portray the villain in the made-for-television family adventure Dinotopia shortly thereafter.