Surya was born to actor Sivakumar and his wife Lakshmi on 23 July 1975. He was born in Chennai, but brought up in Coimbatore. He is the eldest of three children, his younger brother is actor Karthik Sivakumar and he has a younger sister named Brindha Sivakumar.
He attended PSBB School and St. Bede's School in Chennai and graduated from Loyola College with a Bachelor of Commerce degree.
Surya debuted in the 1997 film Nerukku Ner directed by Vasanth and produced by Mani Ratnam. Later he starred in 2001 remake Friends directed by Siddique and Nandha by Bala for which he received a Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Actor. Surya's next venture was Vikraman's Unnai Ninaithu which was followed by Mounam Pesiyadhe.
In 2003 he did Kaaka Kaaka; a movie about the life of a police officer, it grossed almost Rs. 150 million at the box office. Then he did Pithamagan by Bala along with Vikram. In this movie Surya played a happy-go-lucky village crook with a comic touch, for which he received a Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award. In 2004 he received a Filmfare Award for Best Actor for playing two roles in Perazhagan; one was as a boxer and the other as a handicapped but confident phone booth keeper. He then did Aayutha Ezhuthu which was based on George Reddy, a student leader in Hyderabad during the late 60s and early 70s. This film was directed by Mani Ratnam. In 2005, he appeared in Aaru and then in Ghajini. In this movie he played a patient suffering from short term memory loss.
He then set up a production company called Studio Green which distributed the movie in the Chennai district. Surya's 2006 release was N. Krishna's Sillunu Oru Kaadhal. He acted opposite his wife Jyothika Saravanan in the film. In 2007, Surya's solitary release was Vel. In 2008, he appeared in Vaaranam Aayiram, which released on 14 November 2008. He won a Filmfare Award for Best Actor, a Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Actor, a Vijay Award for Best Actor which was presented to him by Kamal Hassan who acknowledged Surya's versatility as an actor, and a Filmfans Award for Best Actor and the film received the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil for 2008. Surya's next film Ayan in 2009 was directed by K. V. Anand and released on 3 April 2009. Following Ayan, Surya starred in Aadhavan directed by K. S. Ravikumar which was released worldwide on 17 October 2009. He is now acting in his 25th film, Singam, directed by Hari. He will make his Bollywood debut in Rakta Charitra, which is being directed by Ram Gopal Varma and is scheduled for a 2010 release.