Peirce was born on September 8, 1967, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Sherry and Robert A. Peirce (originally Materazzi), who owned a construction company. When Peirce was three, she moved to New York City, and at age eleven she moved to Miami, Florida where she eventually graduated from Miami Sunset Senior High School.
While attending the University of Chicago, Peirce moved to Kobe, Japan for two years to work as a photographer and teach English, and then to New York City to work as a photography intern for Time magazine under photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt. She then returned to the University of Chicago to graduate with a degree in English and Japanese Literature.
Peirce then enrolled at Columbia University, to pursue an MFA in film. While at Columbia, Peirce completed The Last Good Breath, an experimental short film about two star-crossed lovers caught amidst a world war in which one lover always lives and the other always dies. The short screened as part of the Leopards of Tomorrow program at the Locarno International Film Festival.
While at Columbia working on an idea for her thesis film about a female soldier in drag during the American Civil War, Peirce read a Village Voice article about the life and death of Brandon Teena, a transgender man from Nebraska who was brutally raped and murdered when his gender history was discovered. Switching from her original thesis project, Peirce traveled to Falls City, Nebraska where she conducted research, interviewed a number of people from the town including Lana Tisdale (Brandon's girlfriend) and Lana's mother, and attended the murder trial of the two homicide suspects. The subsequent film short she made for her thesis in 1995 was nominated by Columbia faculty for a Princess Grace Award, and received an Astrea Production Grant.
After film producer Christine Vachon saw a version of the short, Vachon and Peirce began working on a feature film. In order to fund the writing and development of the feature, Peirce worked as a paralegal on the midnight shift, as a 35mm film projectionist, and received a New York Foundation for the Arts grant. With help from the Sundance Institute's Filmmakers, Writers and Producers Labs in 1997, Peirce completed the feature film in 1999.
Upon its release, Boys Don't Cry became one of the most acclaimed and talked about films of the year, opening at the Venice, Toronto and New York Film Festivals and earning many honors, including the Best Actress Oscar, Golden Globe, Independent Spirit award and many other awards for the film's star, Hilary Swank. Chloë Sevigny was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and Golden Globe and won the Independent Spirit Award and many other awards for her role as Lana Tisdale.
The film received the International Critics prize for Best Film at both the London and Stockholm Film Festivals, the Satyajit Ray Foundation Award for Best First Feature at the London Film Festival, and was named "Best American Feature," by Janet Maslin. Peirce won honors as Best Debut Director from the National Board of Review and Best New Filmmaker from the Boston Society of Film Critics.
In 2005, inspired by the real-life stories of American soldiers, including her own brother, fighting in Iraq and coming home, Peirce began work on Stop-Loss. Peirce traveled the country interviewing soldiers about their experiences and worked with novelist and screenwriter Mark Richard to turn the research into a screenplay.
Released in 2008, Stop-Loss received positive reviews from critics. Peirce was honored with the Hamilton Behind the Camera True-Grit Directing Award as well as the Andrew Sarris Directing Awards for the film. In association with the film, Peirce created a website called SoundOff and gave soldiers and their families cameras to record and share their stories and opinions. Shortly after the film's release, Peirce spoke before the National Press Club and members of Congress on behalf of Soldiers and the Stop-Loss Compensation Act, which financially compensated soldiers for multiple tours of duty served because of the stop-loss policy. The measure subsequently passed.
Much of the inspiration for her two films was said to come from her love of The Godfather:
It showed me that I can take that love of the gangster movie and I can screen it through a family drama. In both my movies family is really important, violence is really important. I’m really interested in the psychological and the authentic portrayal of violence—particularly violence that comes out of emotions. Before The Godfather, I don’t know that you could have such a violent psychological film that was that broadly entertaining.
Peirce directed a remake of the 1976 horror film Carrie, released on October 18, 2013, and starring Chloë Grace Moretz in the lead role.
On February 16, 2011 it was announced that Peirce will direct the crime thriller The Knife, about two men from opposite sides of the law who must overcome their mistrust of one another and risk their lives in order to infiltrate the organization of a ruthless gang leader threatening to spread armed violence across Los Angeles and the urban centers of America.
Peirce is in negotiations to direct and executive produce a limited series for USA Network written by Andre Jacquemetton and Maria Jacquemetton (Mad Men).
Peirce co-wrote the script for Silent Star, a murder mystery about the 1922 death of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor and the scandals that nearly destroyed the film industry. However, the project stalled.
In 2012, Peirce was working on a sex comedy "with a gender twist" for producer Judd Apatow and Universal Studios.
Peirce is openly lesbian.The Last Good Breath (1994) (16mm short) (director and writer)
Leopard of Tomorrow Program at 1994 Locarno International Film Festival
Boys Don't Cry (1999) (director and writer)
The L Word (2006) ("Lifeline") (director)
Stop-Loss (2008) (director and writer)
Carrie (2013) (director)
This Film Is Not Yet Rated – Peirce about the trouble Boys Don't Cry had with the MPAA, particularly the censoring of the sex scenes. Peirce displayed anger over the fact the MPAA wanted the sex scene between Brandon and Lana removed but were satisfied with the overall brutality and violence in the murder scene.
Raging Bull – 30th Anniversary Release, Special Features
Chinatown – Centennial Collection DVD, Special Features
The Godfather – The Coppola Restoration, Special Features, 'The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn't'
Second place, Canada International Film Festival – The Last Good Breath
Golden Award, Experiment Division, Chicago International Film Festival – The Last Good Breath
First place, Suffolk Film Festival
Best Debut Director – National Board of Review
Best New Filmmaker – Boston Society of Film Critics
Young Hollywood Best Director and Best Screenwriter Awards
Las Vegas Film Critics Society Sierra Award, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay
Satyajit Ray Award, 1999
London Film Festival, FIPRESCI Prize
Stockholm Film Festival, Best Screenplay and FIPRESCI Prize
St. Louis International Film Festival, Audience Choice Award
Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Award, Best Limited Release
Lambda Legal Liberty Award
Hamilton Behind-the-Camera Directing Award
Andrew Sarris Directing Award