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Dustin Hoffman has stayed away from romance (on-screen, at least) since wowing audiences in The Graduate and Tootsie. In his new film, he’s giving love another try -- and he’s better than ever.

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ONE OF THE MOST tender scenes in Dustin Hoffman’s new movie, Last Chance Harvey, comes about midway through the film’s 99 minutes. His character, Harvey, sits down at a piano in an empty hotel ballroom and, without saying a word, begins to play a song that is complex yet incredibly earnest. His love interest, played by Emma Thompson, hears the music and quietly sidles up beside him on the piano bench. In an instant it’s clear: He’s gotten the girl.

Yes, at age 71, Hoffman is still as capable of getting the girl as he was when he unwittingly wooed Mrs. Robinson more than 40 years ago. But when Hoffman composed the music that seals the deal for Harvey, the circumstances were quite the opposite.

“That was my first heartbreak,” Hoffman says of the relationship that inspired the melody. He was just 24 at the time, but the details of the breakup are still easy for him to remember. Feeling a bit under the weather on this sunny day in Brentwood, California, he closes his eyes, tears apart a croissant, and recalls the story.

“She was an actress; we lived together,” he says. “We were doing summer stock, my first summer stock, in Fishkill, New York. We met in acting class, and the acting teacher -- it was part of his theater. And he was a wonderful acting teacher, but I came down after a show one night -- I was playing Anne Frank’s boyfriend in The Diary of Anne Frank -- and I came downstairs to the basement, a green-room kind of thing, and caught [my teacher and my girlfriend], uh, necking. I was stunningly shocked. They had this terrible, clunky piano there, and I would play around on it. And suddenly, this music came out.”

Though the memory seems only days old in his mind, it’s taken almost five decades for that tune to find its way to the big screen. In that time, Hoffman has appeared in dozens of feature films and been nominated for a Tony and seven Academy Awards, of which he’s won two, for Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man. He’s also won an Emmy for Death of a Salesman. Despite his body of work, however, it’s Last Chance Harvey, which he describes as “a private conversation,” that he calls one of the best experiences he’s ever had.

This conversation -- largely between Hoffman’s character, Harvey, and Thompson’s Kate -- takes place in London. Harvey has traveled there from New York to attend his estranged daughter’s wedding. As the film plays out, it’s clear to the audience that this isn’t the typical big-screen fare; the characters are believably intimate and unexpectedly revealing. And if the interactions -- the words, the phrases, and the subtlest of expressions -- feel exceedingly real, it’s for good reason. Much of the film was improvised or loosely scripted on set by Hoffman, Thompson, and director Joel Hopkins. The film is an emotional adagio that relies entirely on the chemistry between Hoffman and Thompson. Though the pair’s on-screen rapport seems broken in and well worn, they had worked together only once before, sharing a handful of scenes in 2006’s Stranger than Fiction, which they filmed in Chicago. It was there that their incipient ideas for Last Chance Harvey took shape.

“I sat down with Emma in Chicago and said, ‘Since we have a director who is also the writer, let’s do [the film] under the rules of improvising so that we know the scene and if we wanted to part from it or jump around, if our impulse takes us somewhere else, we can do that,’ ” Hoffman says, explaining that much of Tootsie, Rain Man, and Kramer vs. Kramer were shot that way as well. “[In Kramer vs. Kramer,] Meryl Streep, I remember, asked the director if she could write her own stuff when she was on the stand, when she has a big monologue about what it means to be a mother. She drew from being a mother herself. That was her talking.”

Having seen this technique work so well in the past, Hoffman was confident it would similarly work with Thompson. So confident, in fact, that not only were the two actors comfortable with being unsure of where each scene would go, they didn’t plan out the film’s conclusion either. “We didn’t know where the film would lead,” Hoffman says, shaking his head and brushing croissant crumbs from a comfortably rumpled button-down shirt.

What they did know was where they didn’t want it to lead: to something easy, predictable, or unbelievable. They wanted to make a movie about love in its truest state -- honest, flawed, and sometimes even a little uncomfortable. Real love.

“[When I go to the movies,] I want to see people who I actually believe exist, who are vaguely like me, falling in love,” Thompson says. “People who aren’t perfect, who aren’t so beautiful that anyone would go for them.”

While Hoffman and Thompson might seem like an unlikely romantic pairing -- about 22 years and a handful of inches separate the two -- that’s part of what makes a romantic comedy work, especially at this stage of Hoffman’s career. And the veteran actor, who’s been married to his real-life wife, Lisa Gottsegen Hoffman, for nearly 30 years, knows well that love doesn’t always play out like a fairy tale.

“I find it more fascinating to have an audience sit there identifying with an imperfection of what it is to be human rather than an ideal. And that’s what I had in mind,” he says.

Hoffman speaks with such pride and ownership for the film that it sounds as though he had a hand in directing it. He didn’t, but like many of his on-screen contemporaries, Hoffman says he has aspirations to go behind the camera to direct. And he is also at work on a screenplay, though it’s still locked within a hard drive and far from realization. So, one wonders, what kind of story will he tell?

“Oh, definitely a love story,” he says without hesitation. “Love stories -- that’s what we’re always telling, aren’t we? I think it’s amazing that two people, a man and a woman, with DNA so wired to repel, just want so badly to be together. In fact, I’ve never understood men going out in groups, the pack mentality. I’ve never been that guy, never been part of a sports team, never been at that table full of pals ordering steaks. Never have. I’ve just always wanted to find a woman I can talk to. Talk to all the time.”

He pauses, and with an expression that’s equal parts wistful and hopeful, he quietly, sweetly restates, “Yes, a love story.”

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And why wouldn’t he? After all, it was a love story that catapulted his career when he was 30 years old, playing fresh-faced college alum and hesitant lothario Benjamin Braddock in 1967’s The Graduate. A decade and a half later, he had audiences and critics swooning once again, this time over his role in Tootsie as a cross-dressing actor who falls in love with Jessica Lange’s character, Julie Nichols, and gets caught in an unusual multigender love triangle. But since then, the actor has mostly shied away from romantic roles. He convincingly played an autistic genius in Rain Man and a scheming film producer in Wag the Dog. He’s also mastered parts as a pirate (Hook), a grieving father (Moonlight Mile), and a zany in-law (Meet the Fockers). He’s tackled virtually every genre in the 26 years since Tootsie, but only now has he revisited a plot that tackles serious romance, the honest-to-God grown-up kind. Perhaps it’s because, in his heart, he still doesn’t feel like a leading man.

“I told Emma, ‘I think we’ve spent a lot of time playing characters. We’re not leading men or women, and it’s not like we’re trying to be leading men or women,’ ” he says.

Sensing that this revelation, coming from the man behind so many great starring roles, is startling, he recalls a story to illustrate his point.

“I studied with Lee Strasberg in New York many moons ago,” Hoffman says. “And one of the things he said was -- and he was a great influence on me -- he said, ‘Everybody is a character. There’s no such thing as a leading man or an ingenue or a juvenile or a leading lady.’ He said, ‘Have you ever met someone in life and someone asked you afterward what was that person like, and you said, “He’s a lot like a leading man”?’ He said, ‘Well that’s a character.’ So I always thought then in those terms.”

Hoffman explains that audiences go to the theaters to find themselves, or if they can’t, then to project themselves, in the characters. But listening to him speak, it seems that he, too, is looking for himself in the roles he plays.

“We’re trying to fuse our self -- our imperfect self, our self that would like a different face, a different body, a different nose -- into this other person for two hours, and we do it unconsciously,” he says. “Suddenly, we are Julia Roberts or we are George Clooney, and those are particular kinds of actors. For lack of a better word, signature actors. That’s their signature. And I never felt that I had a signature. Emma and I agree; we don’t have a signature. We’ve spent a lifetime looking for a signature.”

Actors, as a general rule, are largely uncomfortable in their own skin. So it stands to reason that even the greats -- and Hoffman, with more than four decades’ experience under his belt certainly qualifies -- live with a reasonable degree of insecurity. But his particular brand looms larger than his “five-foot-six-and-three-quarter-inch” frame. When he looks back at the instantly identifiable stars of the screen, he doesn’t see himself in their company.

“I’m not like, say, Nicholson or Bogart, where the audience goes to a film and says, ‘That’s Jack.’ Or, ‘That’s Bogart,’ ” he says. “I mean, if you go see a movie I’ve done, would you know what to expect?”

Perhaps not. But that seems to be the genius of the man: He’s as able as he is endearing. Hoffman’s been skilled at hiding himself in so many memorable characters that we still haven’t heard his own story. But you get the feeling, watching Last Chance Harvey, that you’re seeing a glimpse of it. The film offers perhaps the most complete picture of Dustin Hoffman an audience has had the chance yet to see. Hoffman and Thompson let us into their characters’ conversations at the same time that they open the door to their own experiences -- an opportunity most actors don’t allow. There, on the screen, is the actor with a love story rattling around in his head, the romantic who had his heart broken at 24, the man who was never part of the pack. Hoffman is the unlikely hero because he’s a fallible one.

We must respectfully disagree with Mr. Strasberg: That is a real leading man.