Born into a working class family in the Langworthy area of Pendleton, Salford, Lancashire, Eccleston is the youngest of three sons of Elsie and Ronnie Eccleston. His brothers, Alan and Keith, are twins, eight years his senior. The family lived in a small terraced house in Blodwell Street until the late 1960s, when they moved to Little Hulton. At the age of 19, he was inspired to enter the acting profession by television dramas such as Boys from the Blackstuff.
Eccleston is married and became a father to his first child, Albert, in February 2012. He is an atheist. He is a supporter of Manchester United, and was a regular marathon runner until 2000. In September 2007, as part of their £9.5m build scheme, Salford's Pendleton College named their new 260-seat theatre the "Eccleston Theatre". Eccleston is an avid charity worker, becoming a Mencap charity ambassador on 28 April 2005, and is also a supporter of the British Red Cross.
Eccleston made his film debut in the 1991 film Let Him Have It, based on the true story of Derek Bentley, who was wrongly convicted and hanged for the murder of a police officer in 1953. Bentley was an illiterate young adult with developmental disabilities who fell into a gang led by a younger teenager named Chris Craig (Paul Reynolds). The two become trapped by the police, who tell Chris to put down his gun. Bentley says, "Let him have it, Chris." Chris begins firing, killing one officer and wounding another. Because he is a minor (under 18), Chris is given a minor sentence, but Bentley, although he did not shoot anyone, is sentenced to death, on the basis that his statement to Chris was an instigation to begin shooting.
The film's end titles state that Bentley's sister, Iris, was still fighting for his pardon. The BBC reports that seven years after the film was made and after numerous unsuccessful campaigns to get Derek Bentley a full pardon, his conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal on 30 July 1998, one year after Iris' death.
A regular role in the television series Cracker (1993–94) brought him recognition in the UK and, after he told TV bosses of his desire to leave the series, they killed off his character in October 1994, making him a victim of the serial killer Albie Kinsella (Robert Carlyle). His final episode being based around the tragic events of the Hillsborough stadium in 1989. In 1996, he took the part of Trevor Hicks - a man who lost both of his daughters in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster - in the television drama film Hillsborough, penned by Jimmy McGovern. In real life, he was the best man to Trevor Hicks at his marriage in March 2009.
Other tv roles include: Our Friends In The North, Boon, Poirot, Clocking Off, The Borrowers, Lucan and of course as the Ninth Doctor in Doctor Who when the show returned in 2005 thanks to Russell T Davies.
His film credits include: Shallow Grave, Elizabeth, The Others, 28 Days Later, and Malekith in the 2013 Thor 2: The Dark World