by Andrea Mandell, USA TODAY
Taylor Kinney is in the ultimate hot spot.
His career is literally ablaze in the new Dick Wolf-helmed drama Chicago Fire, which has its premiere tonight (NBC, 10 ET/PT).
And as Lady Gaga's 30 million Twitter followers already know, his love life, dating the pop superstar since appearing in her 2011 music video, You and I, is smoking hot.
The new TV series centers on Firehouse 51, where each week teams of firefighters' and paramedics' personal conflicts will play out against a backdrop of burning buildings. Kinney, 31, plays the mercurial Lt. Kelly Severide, "a beer drinking, blue collar, hard-working guy," he says, who belongs to an elite squad that tackles the most dangerous fires.
Brawny and brooding, Kinney's character opens the series mourning the death of a team member, blaming a rival (Jesse Spencer) for the loss. "It's a character-driven show, it's not a fire-of-the-week show," says Kinney by phone from Chicago. "The fire station serves as a meeting place for people to get together and tell their stories."
Wolf calls Chicago Fire "a return to classic broadcast television," and says he hasn't seen an X factor like Kinney's since he cast Chris Noth in Law & Order.
"I think that if the show works he literally could end up being the next George Clooney," says Wolf. "I have a 5-year-old-daughter who literally fell in love with him during the pilot," he adds. "When we were in Chicago she was crying in the hotel and I said, 'What's the matter?' She said, 'I don't understand, why can't I marry Taylor right now, why do I have to wait until I'm 16?' ''
Raised in Lancaster, Pa., by a single mother who worked as a dental hygienist, Kinney had no connection to Hollywood. In his sophomore year at West Virginia University, Kinney took an elective theater course that "held my interest outside of the classroom more so than any other subject I'd ever taken," he says. He left school after his junior year, and after spending a year in Hawaii learning to surf, skydive and frame houses ("I wanted a life experience of my own") Kinney moved to Los Angeles and began auditioning.
His career began heating up in 2010 with the short-lived NBC show Trauma and followed with an arc as a werewolf on The Vampire Diaries last year. To prep for Chicago Fire, Kinney trained with real firefighters and went on intense ride-alongs with them.
"If you do get engulfed in flames even with the gear, the suits that these guys wear, you only have 18 seconds until you're toast," he says. "Getting to ride along with these guys ... it's that respect and adoration that you had for these men and women when you were a kid."
He also seems to have picked up the secret to keeping a normal life. While filming in Chicago, he and Lady Gaga visited restaurants helmed by various Top Chef contestants (he's a fan of the show), but were never photographed doing so. His downtime is similarly spent away from the industry in San Diego, where he surfs the best waves.
"I like walking around the woods and riding a motorcycle by myself for hours at a time and not talking about work all the time," says Kinney, who also has managed to keep his relationship mostly private, although the pop star has posted shots of them together on her Twitter account. "I don't think I've ever said anything publicly up till now," he says. "But I'm happy. I'm in a relationship and I'm happy. Everything is great."
Next, Kinney plays a Navy SEAL in the secretive Kathryn Bigelow film about the killing of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, due Dec. 19. "I was in the Middle East for two months shooting and still hadn't read a script," he says.
But right now, he's content in the firehouse. "It's something I'm really proud of," he says. "We've been working our tails off in Chicago."