Taylor, elder of two sons, was born in London to Australian parents, Maggie, a journalist and book editor, and Paul Taylor, a copywriter and journalist. He was raised in Melbourne. His parents returned to Australia when he was five, and he grew up in Clifton Hill and St Kilda, suburbs of Melbourne. After performing in plays at St. Martin's Youth Theatre in South Yarra for a year, he gained the attention of director John Duigan, who cast him in the 1987 film The Year My Voice Broke, the first part of a planned trilogy. Taylor also appeared in its sequel, Flirting, alongside Thandie Newton with Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts in early supporting roles.
Taylor's early roles included acting the lead in the critically acclaimed The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting and he gained significant international attention playing the tormented young pianist David Helfgott in the 1996 film Shine. Taylor's résumé includes action movies, comedies, psychological thrillers and historical dramas He also played the role of Adolf Hitler in AMC's smash hit series Preacher. Taylor once commented in an interview that he was sick of acting out the nostalgic reminiscences of other people. He has done this in a number of films including The Nostradamus Kid, which was based, apparently, on the memories of the Australian author Bob Ellis, a young David Helfgott in Shine, the protagonist in John Birmingham's memoir He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, and Almost Famous, based on the memories of the film's writer and director, Cameron Crowe. He appeared in the video of "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow", a song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, along with the video for "M.O.R." by British alternative rock group Blur and he also played a young Romeo in the video "Romeos" from Alphaville. Taylor also starred in Simon Rumley's mystery thriller Red White & Blue, which had its world premiere as part of the SXSW Film Festival in March 2010. In 2011, he released his first EP Live Free or Die!!! with his band Noah Taylor & the Sloppy Boys on Z-Man Records. In 2013, Taylor appeared in both the third and fourth seasons of HBO's epic fantasy series Game of Thrones, based on the A Song of Ice and Firebook series by George R. R. Martin. In the adaptation, Taylor plays the character of Locke, an original character of the television series, who serves as a condensed version of several characters of the books, most notably the ruthless and sadistic mercenary leader Vargo Hoat.
When not acting, Taylor draws and paints, and is also an accomplished musician, playing viola and French horn as a young teenager, and guitar from the age of 16. He plays the piano by ear. He has sung and played guitar in several of his own bands, including Honky Tonk Angels, Cardboard Box Man, Flipper & Humphrey, Access Axis, and The Thirteens, a country-western rock band described by Taylor as, "three manic depressives playing sad angst and western music for sad people". He names Johnny Cash and Lou Reed as two of the artists he admires. On 14 November 2012, he married Dionne Harris, an Australian fashion designer. Taylor lives in Brighton, East Sussex.