Discovered by a photographer at the age of 12, Theresa Russell was rapidly initiated into the world of child modeling, and was encouraged to leave public school in order to attend the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. At 19 years old, Russell made her film debut in The Last Tycoon (1976), one of prolific director Elia Kazan's final six films before his death in 2003. Though The Last Tycoon did not share the type of praise garnered for many of Kazan's other films, it nonetheless allowed the inexperienced actress an opportunity to work alongside Robert De Niro, Robert Mitchum, and Jack Nicholson.
In 1978, Russell found herself opposite Dustin Hoffman and a fledgling Kathy Bates in Straight Time, for which she earned no small amount of critical praise for her performance as Hoffman's steadfast love interest. Two years later, Russell took what turned out to be a fruitful risk starring in Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980). Her first of over six experiences acting with Roeg, whom she would later marry, the erotic drama featured Russell opposite Harvey Keitel and Art Garfunkel as a sexually frank woman involved in a torrid affair with her psychiatrist. Though the film was initially rated X, the more explicit scenes were edited enough to appropriate an R rating. Bad Timing wouldn't be Russell's last sexually provocative role; in 1991, she starred in Ken Russell's Whore, an NC-17-rated prostitution drama, and she later took part in Britain's three-part television series A Woman's Guide to Adultery and participated in Erotic Tales II, which was co-directed by Roeg.
Interestingly enough, Russell also took on several pointedly feministic roles, such as her part as a young, idealistic lawyer in Physical Evidence (1989) with Burt Reynolds, and later played a proud, highly capable 19th century widow in The Proposition (1997). In The Razor's Edge, one of Bill Murray's first dramatic roles, Russell's performance as a painfully self-destructive alcoholic was lauded as one of her best yet. In 1998, she played a scorned wife in Wild Things with Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon, and then "it" girls Neve Campbell and Denise Richards. In 2001, Russell was praised for her performance as co-leader of a skinhead sect in Henry Bean's The Believer, which also starred Billy Zane and Ryan Gosling. After several ill-advised film roles and relatively well-received, if short-lived, television appearances, Russell took part in the star-studded television movie Empire Falls (2004) opposite Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, Joanne Woodward, and Paul Newman.