“Hi, I’m Chan,” says Channing Tatum, entering a suite at the Park Hyatt where he will be participating in a roundtable conversation with student journalists. It is almost noon, and Tatum has spent the morning in a nonstop series of interviews for Dear John, his new romantic weepy.

“So, Dear John is a romance, which is perfect for Valentine’s Day, which is coming up,” asks a student. “Do you have any plans for Valentine’s Day?”

“Uh…” Tatum leans forward and clasps his hands together. “Not really, other than…I mean, promoting a film is a 24-hour job.” He chuckles slightly. “I don’t think I’ll have Valentine’s Day off—I’m pretty sure I’ll be having to do something with the film.”

He leans back. “But, I’m sure I’ll have something planned, set aside a little part of the day to do something…sweet.” He raises his voice and a single eyebrow. “It’s not that hard, guys, to do something sweet for your wives and your girlfriends! Figure it out!”

Dear John is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks (author of The Notebook) and directed by Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat.) I suppose this makes it the ultimate romantic film. Tatum plays John, a hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside soldier who falls in love with Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) on summer holiday, but must soon leave for a year-long tour of duty. They resolve to keep in touch, but over the better part of a decade, their love is tested through a variety of obstacles—not the least of which is 9/11. Tatum is so huge and muscled in the film that Amanda Seyfried looks in danger of being crushed whenever they hug. In real life he appears leaner, with his famously broad shoulders mounted precariously over thin legs. Dressed in an ultra-chic grey casual ensemble and with a little wisp of a goatee, I daresay he is almost dandy-ish.

“So, the movie Dear John is all about love,” asks a student. “Can you tell us something about your first love and how it helped you to get in character for this film?”

Tatum leans forward again, clasping his hands together and twiddling his thumbs. “Umm…” He smiles. “I think my first one was in kindergarten—Sarah Cook. I’m pretty sure I was in love with her. But…I won’t tell you about that one ’cause I don’t think it’ll…I dunno, it’s a bunch of finger-painting, and, uh, things like that…”

Another student reads a question: “How has this movie changed your awareness and views on the topics brought up in Dear John, such as the situation in the Middle East, and autism?”

“I didn’t know that much about autism at all,” he says, looking at the floor and rubbing the pads of his thumbs together. “I know it’s a really hot topic and debate right now, but I challenge anyone that wants to get involved in the debate to go and meet some of these kids. Like, Braeden [Reed, his autistic co-star], he is one of the most beautiful little kids I’ve ever met in my entire life—people, not just kids. He has such a wonder about him…when he looks at things you can tell that he’s looking at it to really want to know about it, which is more than I can say about me when I was a kid. I just wanted to run and climb trees and, I don’t know, push little girls down or something.”

“I know that they use ‘typical’ and ‘non-typical’ for labels for them and I just don’t like those. As far as PC terms for them, I think they just learn different. I don’t think they’re ‘special’ or ‘special needs,’ I just think they’re really unbelievable children that take in life differently. And, I dunno, I think we should just be a little more sensitive to that.”

Another student asks, “What were some of the funniest moments that happened to you on the set?”

Tatum hunches forward and claps his hands together. “It’s always funny doing a scene with Braeden, because you never know what he’s gonna do in a scene.”

“One of the funny scenes was that he started to say everyone else’s line with them. It would have been like telepathy if you saw it in real life, but it was so funny because he’s used to doing repetition, and in his treatment, where they try to work with him, they do repetition drills. So he would start to say Henry Thomas’ lines, and my lines, and it was hilarious, crackin’ everybody up, and then he thought it was funny, and everyone else was laughing, and then he wouldn’t stop it, and it was really cute.”

Just as the session is nearly up, Tatum is asked about what research went into playing a soldier. “I don’t think an actor will ever know what it’s like to be a real soldier—actually, I know that they won’t. You can talk to me about being a soldier and I can watch the news, read books, newspapers, you can surround me with soldiers, I can even go there and visit them and I’ll still never know what it’s like to be a soldier. I don’t think any of us will, and I think that we need to be a little more sympathetic to their needs.”

Dear John opens in theatre on February 5.