He began his career in the theatre, first with the Joint Stock Theatre Company and then with the Royal Court Theatre, where he was Artistic Director from 1982 until 1985 and Deputy Director between 1985 and 1987. His productions during this period included Howard Barker's Victory, Howard Brenton's The Genius and Edward Bond's Saved, which won the Time Out Award. Boyle also directed five productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In 1980, Boyle started working in television as a producer for BBC Northern Ireland, where he produced, amongst other TV films, Alan Clarke's controversial Elephant before becoming a director on shows such as Arise And Go Now, Not Even God Is Wise Enough, For The Greater Good, Scout and two episodes of Inspector Morse ("Masonic Mysteries" and "Cherubim and Seraphim"). He was also responsible for the highly acclaimed BBC2 series, Mr. Wroe's Virgins.
Boyle rose to prominence along with writer John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald and actor Ewan McGregor, in the internationally acclaimed Trainspotting, after which he relocated to Hollywood to seek a production deal with a major US studio. He declined an offer to direct the fourth film of the Alien franchise, instead making A Life Less Ordinary using British finance.
In between the films The Beach and 28 Days Later, Boyle directed two TV movies for the BBC in 2001 - Vacuuming Completely Nude In Paradise and Strumpet. He also directed a short film Alien Love Triangle (starring Kenneth Branagh), and was intended to be one of three shorts within a feature film. However, the project was canceled after the two other shorts were made into feature films: Mimic starring Mira Sorvino and Impostor starring Gary Sinise.
He will also direct Ponte Tower, about a girl moving into the Africa's famed fifty-four story skyscraper near the end of the Apartheid-era only to fall under the influence of a druglord, and Slumdog Millionaire, the story of an impoverished child (Dev Patel) on the streets of Mumbai that lucks out on India's variant of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Boyle will direct Solomon Grundy, about a baby who experiences an entire lifetime in just 6 days, Porno and The Texas Killing Fields.