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Photography by Jack Perno

The Fighter

by Matt Lee | Men's Book Chicago magazine | September 14, 2012

One sure sign you’ve made it? When you’re sitting in a near-empty bar on West Grand Avenue on a Saturday afternoon and, within five minutes, are spotted and sent over a shot. Which is exactly what happens to actor Taylor Kinney as we settled in for an interview recently.

“You’re the guy from Shameless, right?” the owner of the bar asks.

“Yeah, right on,” Kinney responds in his everyman Pennsylvania brogue.

“You’re great in that!” says the owner before asking if Kinney would mind posing for a few photos, which the actor readily does.

Kinney, though, doesn’t need too many such reminders he’s on a roll: Because when it comes to landing the big one, it doesn’t get much better than scoring the lead on a prime-time, Dick Wolf-produced NBC drama that has all the hallmarks of a huge hit, which is exactly where Kinney finds himself these days. Kinney, 31, plays firefighter Kelly Severide on Law & Order impresario Wolf’s latest, Chicago Fire, premiering Oct. 10. A character-driven ensemble revolving around a local fire station and filming largely in town, Chicago Fire promises big drama, big conflict and big action. Even before the first episode airs, tough-guy Severide is already embroiled in an intense feud with station mate Matthew Casey, played by House M.D. veteran Jesse Spencer, over the death of a mutual friend and firefighter who was killed in the line of duty.

“It’s not a fire-of-the-week show,” says Kinney, sipping a Guinness, as comfortable perched over the bar as any born-and-bred Chicagoan come quittin’ time. “It’s about the firehouse; our backdrop is the story of firefighting. That serves as a common ground and a meeting point for these people to get together, to tell personal stories and have interactions. You get engaged because of the characters.”

Still, the action sequences are pretty cool, right?

“You’re like a kid in a candy store,” he says. “I love working on those. And Chicago is a beautiful city; it’s a character in its own right. We use tons of local locations. And in the event the show has a long run, it’s great for the city. It’s great for the economy, gives people jobs, gets people excited. In some cities you get people screaming at you on the street, ‘Get the hell out of the way!’ Here, everybody has been excited and cool.”

Kinney was the first actor cast on Chicago Fire and, after spending a bit of time with him, it’s not surprising. The rural Pennsylvania native could, one gets the sense, ease into a local station, sit down with the guys for dinner and fit right in. Though he caught the bug for the dramatic arts in an acting class while pursuing a business degree at West Virginia University, the rest of his existence has been rough-and-tumble all-American, accented with a bit of tough guy. Think: Lots of sports, boxing, bikes, a multitude of construction and roofing jobs and a postcollege year spent living in Hawaii learning to surf and skydive.

“Probably Rad or The Dirt Bike Kid,” Kinney says when asked what films inspired him to become an actor, before cracking up. “Have you seen The Dirt Bike Kid? This kid has a dirt bike that comes to life. One of the best films of ’86 I would say… No, I don’t know… I didn’t watch much TV growing up. But I loved that one. It had nothing to do with being an actor, I just wanted that motorcycle.”

Dreams do come true, and if you see a guy on a 1098 Ducati whipping down Lake Shore, it may well be Kinney. “I got my first dirt bike when I was 12,” he says. “It was a KDX 80. Then, when I was 17, I got my first street bike, and I’ve had bikes ever since. I haven’t had a car in 12 years.”

The Ducati, however, took some work.

“I had just finished this show, Fashion House [in 2006],” he says. “I went into the Ducati dealership in Los Angeles and put a down payment on a 1098, so I was on the short list…”

It was then our hero was struck by the cruel hand of fate.

“I don’t even know what I had spent my money on,” he says. “I was 24. Sushi. Anyway, I was broke and I had to go in and ask for my down payment back. I literally had tears in my eyes leaving the dealership.”

Kinney, though, taking cues from his boxing days and from the herculean work ethic instilled in him by his mom was far from down for the count. He “refocused and reasserted” himself and, in the same way he had broken down barriers when he first moved to L.A., began “hustling, hustling, hustling.”

It took a couple of years to get back into the mix, but soon high-profile roles on shows like Trauma, The Vampire Diaries and Shameless followed.

“So about seven months ago I was still riding my GSX-R750, which I had put 90,000 miles on,” he says, a good-humored smile on his face. “But it started to get really bad. I was changing the chains all the time, the tires. I do a lot of the work myself. Then the electric started to go. So I finally splurged, it was my last big splurge, and got the 1098S. I redeemed myself. I got the Ducati I wanted and it’s a beautiful, beautiful lady… yeah… that was my indulgence. I love that thing.”