April 21, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Forget the Grail. For a truly challenging quest, try finding the editing bay on the Sony lot where The Da Vinci Code is undergoing final tweaking before its May 19 release. The room’s location is so secret — most studio employees don’t have a clue what’s really behind that door labeled DENTAL RECORDS on the first floor of the Gene Autry Building — not even an anagram-obsessed Harvard professor of symbology could discover it. Fortunately, on this particular March afternoon, there are two giant clues sitting at a conference table inside that hidden office, and they are nibbling salad out of plastic containers. ”You know, there’s a website now that specializes in pictures of stars eating, catching them in midbite,” Tom Hanks notes after waving you into the room where Ron Howard is also waiting with a forkful of lettuce. ”Hope you brought your camera.”

Hanks, 49, and Howard, 52, haven’t said much publicly about The Da Vinci Code before today. Indeed, the movie — starring Hanks as that big-brained globe-trotter Robert Langdon, Audrey Tautou as the mysterious Sophie Neveu, as well as Sir Ian McKellen, Paul Bettany, and Jean Reno — was shot and edited under such a shroud of secrecy, nobody knows exactly what to expect when it opens. There was speculation last year that Sony wanted to sanitize the controversial premise of Dan Brown’s novel — about a 2,000-year-old Vatican conspiracy covering up evidence of canoodling between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene — but Howard says it’s not so. Some offended Evangelicals are planning protests and boycotts, but so far, most major Catholic organizations have been quiet. The folks at Sony have been predicting — well, more like praying — that this latest Hanks-Howard big-screen collaboration (the third, after Splash and Apollo 13) will be the studio’s salvation at the box office this year. And then, of course, there’s the one thing about The Da Vinci Code that moviegoers of every creed and denomination, even atheists, have been wondering about: What in God’s name is up with Hanks’ hair?

We spent the afternoon in this clandestine editing room talking to the actor and director about all these things and more. It was only later, after Hanks and Howard left the conversation, that we noticed the anagram hidden in the sign on the door. DENTAL RECORDS = SACRED NERD LOT.

EW So, how much hate mail are you guys getting these days? Are you hearing from people who think the book is anti-Catholic?
RON HOWARD There may be a stack collecting that I’m not aware of — I haven’t been focusing on it. But I’ll tell you what I get a lot. I get people saying,”Don’t screw this up.” There’s a lot more anxiety about that.
TOM HANKS
I think a lot of that [anger] was shot on the book. The book garnered so much of that stuff. We were anticipating it coming our way, but it never really materialized.

EW But there was some of that controversy while you were shooting the movie. Didn’t 200 or so protesters show up while you were filming in Lincolnshire, England?

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