Brody was born in Woodhaven, Queens, New York City, New York, the son of Sylvia Plachy, a photographer, and Elliot Brody, a retired history professor and painter.
Taking acting classes as a child, by age thirteen, he appeared in an Off-Broadway play and a PBS television film.After appearing in Bullet in 1996 with Tupac Shakur and Mickey Rourke, Brody hovered on the brink of stardom, receiving an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his role in the 1998 film Restaurant, and later praise for his roles in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. He received widespread recognition when he was cast as the lead in Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002). The role won him an Academy Award for Best Actor, making him, at age twenty nine, the youngest actor ever to win the award, and to date the only winner under the age of thirty. He also won a César Award for his performance.
After The Pianist, Brody appeared in four very different films. In Dummy (released in 2003, but originally shot in 2000, just prior to his work in The Pianist), he portrayed Steven Schoichet, a socially awkward aspiring ventriloquist in pursuit of a love interest (his employment counsellor). He learned ventriloquism and puppetry for the role (under the tutelage of actor/ventriloquist Alan Semok) convincingly enough to perform all of the voice stunts and puppet manipulation live on set in real time, with no subsequent post dubbing. He played Noah Percy, a mentally disabled young man, in the film The Village, by M. Night Shyamalan, shell-shocked war veteran Jack Starks in The Jacket, writer Jack Driscoll in the 2005 King Kong remake, and father-to-be Peter Whitman in The Darjeeling Limited by Wes Anderson. King Kong was both a critical and box office success - it grossed $550 million worldwide, and is Brody's most successful film to date in monetary terms. He appeared in Woody Allen's 2011 Academy Award-winning comedy Midnight in Paris as Salvador Dalí. On January 16, 2012, Brody made his debut as a runway model for Prada Men Fall/Winter 2012 show.
In 2014, Brody collaborated again with Wes Anderson in the Academy Award-winning The Grand Budapest Hotel, where he played Dmitri. He received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or in a Movie for portraying the titular character in Houdini, a History channel miniseries. The following year, he starred as Tiberius in the Chinese film Dragon Blade, which grossed $54.8 million in its opening week in China.
In 2017, it was announced he would join the cast of the fourth season of the BBC crime drama Peaky Blinders. On August 4, 2017, he received the Leopard Club Award at the Locarno Festival.The Leopard Club Award pays homage to a major film personality whose work has made a lasting impact on the collective imagination.