24's new addition opens up about Hilary and his new girlfriend

Just a year after separating from wife Hilary Swank, Chad Lowe is moving on: He’s got a new gig (as Deputy Chief of Staff Reed Pollock on FOX’s 24) and a new leading lady: producer Kim Painter.

“She’s a lovely person,” the actor-director, 39, tells PEOPLE of Painter, 33, with whom he stepped out after the Golden Globes on Jan. 15. “It’s a very new relationship.”

Of course, his last relationship, with the two-time Oscar-winning Swank, was higher-profile, and some observers wondered whether her skyrocketing career hurt their marriage.

But Lowe says that’s not true. “I was always proud of her achievements,” he says. “It’s true that I was less than inspired by the opportunities coming my way as an actor. But that in no way negated my support or admiration for all she’s accomplished.”

The couple separated after eight years of marriage, and announced in May they were divorcing. “It takes two people to keep a marriage strong,” Lowe says, “but if one isn’t willing to do the work then it’s difficult to continue growing together.”

In July, Swank told Vanity Fair that Lowe’s substance abuse prevented them from being “completely solid.”

“I was disappointed with her decision to go public with my sobriety,” says Lowe. “But I don’t deny that I had a problem and that it strained our relationship. Was this the reason it ended? No. I’ve been sober for nearly four years and have never felt better. (I’m) forever grateful to Hilary for her support.”

Now, though, he’s focused on his 24 role, which he calls “thrilling,” and his relationship with Painter. “(We’re) taking it very slow,” he says, “and are just enjoying each other’s company.”