Jeremy Irons

In a four-decade career, Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons has never done network television. Now he's making the leap with a guest-starring role on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

"I've done no network TV (and) Law & Order: SVU is so popular amongst a wide variety of my friends," Irons tells TVGuide.com. "I thought it had great style. It reminded me of those paperback crime novels, which move very fast and ... I liked the way they told the stories."

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On Wednesday's episode titled "Mask," the 62-year-old actor plays Captain Jackson, a sex therapist and estranged father of rape victim Ann, played by Criminal Minds' A.J. Cook. As detectives Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Chris Meloni) look into Jackson's life, his sordid past is revealed.

Irons, who won the best-actor Oscar for his performance as Claus von Bulow in 1990's Reversal of Fortune, says the multidimensional aspect of the role is what drew him to the series. "He contained enigmatic qualities; he's a mystery," he says.  "[He's] basically a good person, but a person who had fought his battles in life and to a certain extent came through."

Executive producer Neal Baer says that despite the things viewers won't like about Jackson, Irons, who neatly pulls off playing twisted characters, brings empathy to the role.

"He's struggling with some real fierce emotional issues that he's able to bring to the surface in a way that we can all identify with, secrets that we have that we don't know how to deal with," Baer says.

See photos of Jeremy Irons through the years

Despite the actor's breadth of film roles, Irons — who made a splash on TV in the early '80s miniseries Brideshead Revisited — is continuing his venture back into television with Showtime's The Borgias. Premiering this spring, the period drama stars Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, the patriarch of a corrupt, Renaissance-era Italian noble family.

So why television now?

"There's no doubt that I think work of a higher standard is now being done on American television than in many American films. More and more actors who we're used to seeing on the big screen are coming and working on television and finding fantastic material," Irons adds. "Whereas maybe 10 years ago I'd think twice about doing television ... now it's something which is very attractive for actors."

"Mask" airs Wednesday at 10/9c on NBC.