Vikram Vinod Raj was born to a Christian father Vinod Raj and Hindu mother Rajeshwari in Madras, Tamil Nadu on 17 April 1966. His father, Vinod Raj was a native of Paramakudi and ran away from home to start a career in films. His father however did not fare successfully, and only managed to act in supporting roles in Tamil films and television serials and this inspired Vikram to take part in theatre lessons and become professionally trained in classical and cinema dance forms to ensure he became a leading actor. Rajeswari, Vikram's mother, was a sub-collector and her brother, Thyagarajan is an established director-actor in the Tamil film industry; with his son, actor Prashanth, being Vikram's first cousin. Vikram has an elder sister, Anita, who is a teacher and an elder brother, Arvind, who was previously set to make his film debut in the 2008 film Saroja but eventually did not feature.
Vikram was educated at Montfort School, Yercaud, a boarding school in a hill station near Salem and graduated in 1983. He has mentioned since that he used his opportunities at school well and learned karate and swimming out of lessons. Despite expressing his interest to join films after school, his father forced him to go through college with Vikram subsequently graduating in English from Loyola College, Chennai and working half way through an MBA programme. Vikram was knocked down by a truck during a major motorbike accident while in college and suffered a serious leg injury. He remained hospital-ridden bed for three years during college and subsequently went through twenty three surgeries to stop his leg being amputated.
Vikram began his career by modelling in advert films for brands including Chola Tea, TVS Excel and Alwyn watches. During the final year of his M.B.A programme at Loyola College, he was recognised by the film industry, with veteran director C. V. Sridhar approaching him for a lead role in a film. Vikram made his film debut in 1990 by appearing in En Kadhal Kanmani, a small budget love story featuring him alongside Rekha Nambiar, with Sridhar's Thanthu Vitten Ennai opposite Rohini being his next release. He then signed on to be a part of cinematographer P. C. Sriram's college love story, Meera with high expectations, however the three films failed to launch his career. His appearances in Meera and in Kaaval Geetham, with another veteran director S. P. Muthuraman, helped him secure film offers from the Malayalam and Telugu film industries. In 1993, he almost signed on to appear in Mani Ratnam's Bombay and featured in the initial photo shoot alongside Manisha Koirala. However Mani Ratnam wanted Vikram to remove his beard for the role, and Vikram could not do so due to continuity problems with another film he had signed and hence was dropped from the project.
Between 1993 and 1994, Vikram appeared in a series of films where he portrayed supporting roles. He appeared in couple of successful Malayalam films. During the period, Vikram also appeared in the small budget Telugu film Chirunavvula Varamistava in the lead role and as Akkineni Nageswara Rao's eldest son in the family drama Bangaru Kutumbam with both films failing commercially. A brief return to Tamil films also proved unsuccessful, with his role in Vikraman's multistarrer Pudhiya Mannargal with music composed by A. R. Rahman turning out to be a commercial failure. Throughout 1995 and 1996, Vikram appeared in further Telugu and Malayalam films to receive income, being kept away from Tamil films due to a lack of offers. His first lead role was in Malayalam with Itha Oru Snehagatha.
During his struggling phase, Vikram dubbed for other heroes in films including voices for Prabhu Deva, Ajith Kumar, Abbas and John Edathattil for Kaadhalan, Minsara Kanavu, Amaravathi, Kandukondain Kandukondain and Kuruthipunal. Vikram has mentioned that he did not look down on dubbing and saw it as "dignity of labour". During the period he also attended dancing classes every day, and tried acting out different scenes, different characters with his small group of friends. Vikram also rejected approaches from television serial producers, citing that working in television would reduce his chances of becoming a mainstream actor.
In 1998, debutant director Bala offered him the role of the rogue, Sethu (Chiyaan), in the film Sethu. To prepare for the character, Vikram shaved his head, lost twenty-one kilograms and grew his nails long for the role.] During this phase, he did not accept other acting offers in order to maintain the continuity of his looks. Sethu took two full years to completion. The film initially struggled to find a distributor, but managed to find a buyer after 67 screenings. It was shunned by most distributors due to the tragic climax. The film was released in December 1999 and initially began running at a single noon show at a suburban theater but gradually gained an audience through word-of-mouth publicity. Eventually it ran for over one hundred days at several cinema halls across Chennai. Vikram was constantly being mobbed by people on the streets as a result of the film's success. Vikram did not sign up to a film for sixty five days after the release of Sethu, to ensure that he made the right career move. Vikram spent time completing projects he had agreed to feature in before the release of Sethu and hence made a couple of appearances in the Malayalam films. He also played a leading role in Siragugal, a rare Tamil telefilm produced and featuring Radhika Sarathkumar, which was shot entirely in the suburbs of London. Furthermore, he also completed two Telugu films during the period.
Apart from acting, Vikram has also been a part of other film-making processes with credits as a playback singer and as an assistant director. In 2000, Vikram and actress Meena launched a pop album titled Kadhalism, which the pair would sing and appear in music videos for, although the project was completed without much promotion.
Vikram has promoted various social causes with several of his charity work being linked to characters he had portrayed in his films. He has been a brand ambassador of Sanjeevani Trust and a school for special children Vidya Sudha, which he stayed at during the making of Deiva Thirumagal. Moreover he has had a long-term association since the making of his film Kasi with the Kasi Eye Care, which does free eye surgeries for the poor. Vikram has also set up The Vikram Foundation through his fan club to provide heart operations for the poor, educate poor children and rehabilitate victims from natural disasters. Every year Vikram has celebrated his birthday doing charity work across Tamil Nadu and in 2008, he organised a camp where a thousand of his fans pledged their eyes in an eye donation appeal. He has lent his support for the Chennai-based charity, The Banyan, and appeared in the charity musical Netru, Indru, Naalai directed by Mani Ratnam for the cause.