Bae Doo-na started out as a model after being scouted while she was still a student in Hanyang University in 1998. She transitioned to acting in 1999 after debuting in the TV series School. In 2000, she was cast in director Bong Joon-ho’s film Barking Dogs Never Bite, which she credited as the movie that made her decide to become a good actress. In 2002, Bae Doo-na was named Best Actress at the 38th Baeksang Arts Awards for the movie Take Care of My Cat. In 2006, she reunited with director Bong Joon-hoo for the monster film The Host, which is one of the highest-grossing movies in Korea. Bae Doo-na made her Hollywood debut in 2012 through the epic science fiction film Cloud Atlas. She then starred in the 2014 South Korean film A Girl at My Door, which earned her the Best Actress trophy at the 2015 Asian Film Awards. In 2017, she starred in the hit tvN crime thriller series Forest of Secrets, which took home the Daesang for TV in the 54th Baeksang Arts Awards.

Aside from acting, Bae Doo-na is also a photographer and has published several photo essay books. Her mother is a stage actress while her older brother is a film director. In 2014, Bae Doo-na confirmed her relationship with British Hollywood actor and Cloud Atlas co-star Jim Sturgess. A year after the confirmation, Bae Doo-na’s agency released the news of their breakup.