As John Dee, David Thewlis Makes His The Sandman Role One to Remember
It takes a lot—in any medium, whether it be literature, a film, or a television show—to craft a good villain. It takes even more to make that good villain complex and nuanced. In Netflix’s The Sandman, which loyally adapts Neil Gaiman’s beloved comic of the same name, a master at playing both of those sorts of characters brings it all together.
In the show’s second episode, viewers are introduced to a man named John Dee, played by David Thewlis. Thewlis is an actor who’s accumulated quite the impressive resumé in the past couple decades, and his role as Dee—the antagonist of the first half of The Sandman‘s Season 1—feels like it will become just the latest highlight. The character of John Dee is one who in the hands of a lesser performer could have been something of a mustache-twirling baddie; an abuser of power, someone who is just out on a rampage for revenge.
But Thewlis plays Dee with a bit of unspoken melancholy that comes through best in his facial expressions and body language, detailed by the soft tone in which he speaks—often detailing the kinds of heinous crimes (murder, among others) that he’s committed.
In Gaiman’s source material, the character doesn’t quite have the same touch. The comic series is more closely intertwined with the DC Universe; John Dee is just another pseudonym used by a character who also goes by Doctor Destiny, a punching-bag villain who’s been rendered into a mummy/zombie-esque monster after the overuse of Dream’s Ruby and repeated defeat by the likes of Batman and Green Lantern. He spends most of his days in Arkham Asylum.
With those DC connections severed in Netflix’s series, Thewlis has to do much more of the heavy lifting. And Gaiman, along with co-showrunners Allan Heinberg and David S. Goyer, did a nice job of making this character into one who not only feels like a real threat—but one we can almost see eye to eye with at times as well. From the heart-pounding-but-ultimately-humanizing moment of giving Rosemary (Sarah Niles) a gift to the non-stop horror of the “24/7” episode, this is a character and a portrayal that you won’t soon forget.
John Dee is just the latest great role for David Thewlis.
To put it simply, Thewlis is a tremendous actor and has been so across film and television for decades. Sandman viewers wondering where, exactly, they know him from have most likely seen him in a few of their favorite franchises: he played Professor Lupin in several films of the Harry Potter series, and was the surprise villain Ares in 2017’s Wonder Woman.
But the classics don’t end there. Thewlis’ was already a working actor for quite a while when his major breakthrough came in the 1993 independent film Naked, which landed at Cannes and made his name. He had other memorable roles in the ’90s, including a small-but-unforgettable role just sitting and snickering like an absolute weirdo next to Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. He played the lead in Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion film Anomalisa, and re-teamed with Kaufman for his existential-horror movie i’m thinking of ending things in 2020, sharing the screen with heavy hitters Toni Collette, Jesse Plemons, and Jessie Buckley.
Thewlis has given stellar work on the television side before The Sandman as well; he earned an Emmy nomination for his work in Season 3 of Fargo, and in 2021 starred opposite Oscar-winner Olivia Colman in the based-on-a-true-story murder tale Landscapers. And if you’ve been thinking that his voice sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard him as the Shame Wizard on Netflix’s Big Mouth or its spinoff, Human Resources.
He’s also shown his talents off the screen as well; the 59-year-old star wrote and directed the 2003 film Cheeky, and has published two of his own novels: The Late Hector Kipling, which was released in 2007, and Shooting Martha, which came out in 2021.
Evan is the culture editor for Men’s Health, with bylines in The New York Times, MTV News, Brooklyn Magazine, and VICE. He loves weird movies, watches too much TV, and listens to music more often than he doesn’t.
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