Bridget Galton EMMA Thompson, who has lived all her life in the same West Hampstead street, describes her latest film as a love letter to London. Last Chance Harvey centres around an unexpected romance between two middle-aged lost souls, who fall for each

Bridget Galton

EMMA Thompson, who has lived all her life in the same West Hampstead street, describes her latest film as a love letter to London.

Last Chance Harvey centres around an unexpected romance between two middle-aged lost souls, who fall for each other amid the ordinary pubs, workplaces and train stations of the capital.

The film, which co-stars Dustin Hoffman, was largely shot in northwest London, with not a glimpse of Big Ben or Buckingham Palace.

"It's a very romantic city," says Thompson, who says she gets homesick for the city when she is working away.

"It's full of incredible nooks and crannies and views and vistas. The picture is a bit of a valentine to the city."

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Hoffman plays New Yorker Harvey Shine, whose dead end job as an ad jingle writer is under threat as he flies to London to attend his daughter's wedding.

He learns that she has chosen her stepfather to walk her down the aisle, misses his flight home, gets fired by his boss and is drowning his sorrows in the airport bar when he meets Thompson's Kate - an intelligent, compassionate, single woman still under the thumb of her demanding mother (played by Eileen Atkins).

The small scale love story was written by writer and director Joel Hopkins. After seeing his BAFTA-winning debut Jump Tomorrow, Thompson contacted Hopkins to congratulate him.

Hoping the Oscar-winning actress would sign up for his film, he sent her the draft script he had written with her in mind.

She read it within 24 hours, loved its comic touches and uncynical tone and immediately emailed it to Hoffman, who came on board two days later.

Hoffman says that he and Thompson hit it off when they appeared in a previous film Stranger Than Fiction.

"We only had a couple of scenes together," he says.

"We used to walk the streets, learning our lines. We'd try to say them so people would think we were really just having a conversation that they were eavesdropping on.

"We really liked each other. At the end of the shoot, we said that someday maybe we'll get to make a movie together where we have bigger parts.

"She called me back in about a year. She'd met Joel Hopkins. He wrote something, I read it and we thought, wonderful - we can work together."

"Dustin and I had chemistry," adds Thompson. "That just happens sometimes - but not as often as you'd like. When Joel asked if I had any thoughts about Last Chance Harvey, I said this would really suit me and Dustin down to the ground.

"Normally these things never work. It all sounds lovely - somebody who's written his second script for two specific actors. It sounds like a no brainer, but it never gets made.

"It's only because Dustin agreed to do it for a lot less than he would normally be paid that it happened."

Hoffman says he was attracted to a love story between two people no longer "in the flush of youth", who had resigned themselves to being alone.

"One of the things that happens when a marriage fails is that you realise you don't know what you think you know.

"You knew that this person was the one for you - or you thought you did - and it shatters your belief system and you shut down.

"These two have been so pained by the expectation of what they thought they were going to have that they do not want to get involved with each other. That gives the film tension."

As Thompson says: "Falling in love when you're older is devastating, especially when you don't think it's going to come your way."

She adds: "I want to see people who I actually believe to exist, who are vaguely like me, falling in love. People who aren't perfect, who aren't so beautiful that anyone would go for them.

"You don't see love stories about that. You just see very beautiful people falling in love with each other and I'm just bored witless. I don't care about them!"

Thompson based her performance on real women she knows who just haven't found the right person.

"It doesn't really matter what the age is," she says. "It's just not quite being able to find that connection - and not from want of trying. Kate does try.

"But it's only somebody like Harvey who just happens into her life and won't give up that makes her let her defences down."

Hopkins says that working with two award-winning actors was a steep learning curve.

"It's been a pretty humbling experience, but amazing fun. I got used to watching the actors but then suddenly I'd see them on the monitor, and I'm like, oh my God, that's Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson and I'm directing them!

"The best thing for me was to give them a lot of freedom and be there when they needed me. It's true when they say that directing is mostly getting your casting right. I got it right and I didn't need to do much more. I just tell them where to stand."

Thompson has a slightly different version: "Joel was great. He and Dustin used to argue sometimes - you know, really, really argue. He also argued with the director of photography. I thought, 'This guy is really stubborn and has the balls and the smarts.'"

Producer Tim Perell noted the huge differences between Thompson and Hoffman's acting process. While the British actress was calm, grounded, and ready to work through different ways of playing a scene to get it right, Hoffman's method style was more mercurial.

"With Dustin, you see the machinery at work, he's very naked with his process. He has this completely sprawling mind, but nothing escapes him.

"Every detail is examined, questioned, analysed and processed and he's processing it as Harvey, not as Dustin.

"It elevates the performance. It elevates all of us. But you definitely cannot relax. Things will be questioned, so you always need to know why and where and how."

Thompson says: "The fact is, I don't care what his process is, we just get on set and play. Dustin is such a consummate artist. Every single moment has to be found and made and newly minted. He's completely unique. He's a man made of energy. He could run me ragged and I have a lot of energy. He's very exacting on himself. Not on me."

As Kate and Harvey fall in love over one weekend, they wander London's streets in a series of impromptu walking tours, from the courtyard of Somerset House to the South Bank.

Hopkins didn't want to shoot postcard London but to give the feel of a modern city, including bus rides, Paddington Station and the cranes of new building in the background.

But he also wanted to bathe those places in the glow of the couple's emerging relationship and evoke London as a romantic place where two people might fall in love.

His locations include studios in Charlbert Street, St John's Wood, a car park in Rossmore Court, Marylebone, a house in Chalcot Gardens, Belsize Park, Graze restaurant in Maida Vale and Crocker's Folly pub in Aberdeen Place, St John's Wood.

Thompson, who won an Oscar for her film script of Sense And Sensibility and a best actress for Howard's End, says that the film's message is simple.

"It's about love. It's about human connection. It's about two people allowing themselves to love at a time of life where it might not be the easiest option.

"For Harvey, you know it's his last chance. And very possibly, it is for Kate. Yes, she's got her life, she does her thing, she looks after her mum, then something happens to illuminate her life."

Hoffman says that to play Harvey, he simply imagined what his life would be like if he hadn't met his wife Lisa who he's been with for 34 years.

For Thompson, who lives with partner Greg Wise and their daughter Gaia, it was "a coming of age movie for both of us".

"I don't think we could have done it earlier in our careers. I love that about the movie.

"We could not have appeared so naked in it earlier in our careers without the plot needing to have wild, out there characters."

But she's happy with her own CV. "I think, Wow, how did all this happen? I'm looking forward to building on it too. Using what I've learned on other things."

Thompson, who is currently filming the sequel to her children's film Nanny McPhee - Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang, says she no longer feels split between her acting and screenwriting work.

"I recently made a rather interesting unexpected discovery. I always thought writing was the antidote to acting and the other way around. It didn't satiate the same creative urge.

"I now find I am quite wrong and writing does serve the same purpose. I can use it as therapeutically as I use acting. Sitting down and writing for two hours, I prescribe that for myself some days. I think, OK, you're feeling this way. You should write.

Asked how she finds time to act, write and be a wife and mum she says: " My daughter is eight now and when she goes off to school, between 9am and 3pm, I have the time. That's plenty. I never write for more than four hours. Then I go and pick her up from school."

When Gaia was born, she took four years out of acting. "Yes, I just stopped. I didn't act for four years, except for one thing, WIT. But that was six or seven weeks in a local studio."

But although Gaia makes a brief appearance in Last Chance Harvey, she has no plans to follow her parents into the business.

"Gaia is on the kids' table at the wedding, but she doesn't want to be an actor. "I asked her after the scene, 'Did you enjoy that?' and she said, 'I love the room service.' And I said, 'But, as a career, would you like to be an actor?' and she said, 'No, no, no, I don't really fancy that.' She actually has twin career goals. She wants to be an artist and a cocktail waitress."

Asked about turning 50 (in April), Thompson says: "I think I feel fine about it. It's a big milestone because when you reach it, you can turn around and do or say whatever you want.

"My great friend, the actor Derek Jacobi, recently turned 70 and I said, 'What was that like compared to 50 or 60?' and he said, 'It's very different. At 50, you can do whatever you want. Sixty, you kind of have to do what you're doing. Seventy, you have no choices left.' So with a view to making the right choices, I'm taking a year off. That's my birthday present to myself."

She adds: "When I finish shooting Nanny McPhee, I'm not going to act or write. I'll be a mum, teach drama at my daughter's school. I'll cook meals and have fun, go out with my friends. I'll go to movies and not think about working. I'll see what bubbles up after that.

"Sometimes I think you have to stop creating and let your brain relax. It hones the appetite. I think that's important."

Last Chance Harvey is out in cinemas on June 5.