Maura Lynn Tierney, the oldest of three children, was born to a prosperous politician father, Joseph Tierney, and a real estate agent mother, Pat Tierney. She grew up in the exclusive Hyde Park district of Boston and attended Notre Dame Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Hingham, Massachusetts. In 1983 she moved to New York to study drama at NYU, where she performed in quite a few university plays, including Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; Baby With the Bathwater; Danny and the Deep Blue Sea; Talking With; and Food. After receiving a BFA degree in Theater Studies, Maura honed her skills at the Circle in the Square Theater School, but did not complete her studies there. Opting instead to pursue her acting career in Tinseltown, she moved to Los Angeles in 1987.
Like countless other Hollywood hopefuls, Maura struggled to get noticed and land a breakthrough role. Her first jobs were in made-for-TV movies: she played a mean cheerleader in Disney's 1987 movie for ABC titled Student Exchange, and had a forgettable role in the 1988 movie Crossing the Mob. That same year she was cast in The Van Dyke Show, a short lived series on CBS. This was followed by guest appearances on various television series like Family Ties, Booker, and Law & Order.
Maura's feature film debut was in 1991's Dead Women in Lingerie, though her formal resume lists her first movie credit as 1991's The Linguini Incident.