GETTING BUGGED : ACTORS STUCK WITH CREEPY ROOMMATES IN MEGA-MESSY `JOE'S APARTMENT'.
``There's something disgusting about cockroach antennae tickling the roof of your mouth.''
Actor Jerry O'Connell, 22, says this with the dead-calm assurance of someone who knows. And he does know. For his role as the hygienically challenged slacker Joe in ``Joe's Apartment,'' O'Connell gamely placed a cockroach between his lips.
``Uh, I don't mean to brag, but I put two cockroaches in my mouth,'' O'Connell says, correcting an apparently common and annoying error many have made. ``I did not ingest them, though. I expelled them very politely.''
And he did it five times to get the shot right. What's more, he didn't have to.
``I did it for the team,'' says O'Connell, a lanky, handsome lad who is nearly unrecognizable from his early days in film, when he played the ``fat kid with the crew cut'' in ``Stand by Me.''
``They were going to do it with computer-generated images, but I thought, `How much cooler would it be if I did it for real?' Thank God the roaches didn't have an urge to lay eggs in my mouth.''
Yessir. Thank God for that.
Dedication to the art of moviemaking may have reached new highs - or new lows, depending on how you look at it - with ``Joe's Apartment,'' a silly, disgusting and ultimately sweet film about life in New York City's East Village.
The saga of Joe and his roaches began in 1992, as a creepy MTV short played between songs. It was created by John Payson, a Harvard graduate and Harvard Lampoon cartoonist who supervised production of MTV's avant-garde ``Liquid Television'' series.
The popularity of the short prompted Payson - with the backing of MTV, Geffen Pictures and Warner Bros. - to expand ``Joe's Apartment'' into a full-length film. With an alternative rock soundtrack, a grunged-out lead actor and a cast of thousands of bugs, the film is a fitting project for ultra-hip MTV's first foray into feature films.
O'Connell and Megan Ward play young lovers caught between cockroaches and corporate corruption in the Big - and, in this case, stinking - Apple. Don Ho (yes, the ``Tiny Bubbles'' guy) and Robert Vaughn play the foils.
But the real stars of the movie are the more than 2,000 cockroaches who sing, dance and philosophize with the cuddly likability of Disney characters. They sing surf songs while hanging ten in a sewer, swim an elegant Esther Williams-esque water ballet in a filthy toilet and get down disco-style atop a ``funky'' (as in smelly) towel.
``Nobody likes cockroaches. But you'll fall in love with them when you see this movie,'' says Ward. ``They're such great characters for a film.''
To make the film, O'Connell, and occasionally Ward, spent seven weeks knee deep in garbage in a re-created tenement building. ``Joe's Apartment'' isn't just messy, it's a roach wonderland of months-old rotting food, foul socks and underwear, mold, dust and muck.
``Nothing will ever seem as messy to me as Joe's apartment as long as I live,'' says O'Connell, who plays the time-jumping Quinn on the Fox television series ``Sliders'' and whose next film role is as a spick-and-span football hero in the Tom Cruise comedy ``Jerry Maguire.''
``It was so authentic, this tenement apartment, that after a few days it began to smell. The food started to go bad. It took on a life of its own.''
Director-writer Payson's concern for authenticity apparently extended to O'Connell's personal habits, too.
``Honestly, during the making of this film I would get into trouble for being too clean,'' O'Connell insists. ``Shaving was out of the question. If I bathed, I'd get into trouble.''
The stench and the filth, however, helped O'Connell dig into his character: a fresh-faced Iowa farm boy who, after getting beat up by the big city, finds his only friends are the cockroaches in his hellish home.
The roaches, unlike the street thugs who take Joe's money, respect and even admire Joe, mostly because his piOggish ways make life easy for bugs.
In real life, O'Connell says he came to respect the roaches as well - a respect that came about under the tutelage of ``roach wrangler'' Ray Mendez of Arizona, who brought 2,500 American roaches (commonly called ``waterbugs'') to the project.
``Roaches are intelligent creatures,'' says O'Connell. ``They're the best. I have a real affinity for them. I have not killed a roach since I made this film.''
Indeed, it's hard not to feel at least a twinge of affection for roaches after talking to Mendez, a nattily dressed bug specialist and strong advocate of improved roach-human relations.
``I have real passion about insects and about getting people to not be afraid of them and about getting people to live healthier lives not as full of chemicals and pesticides,'' Mendez says, balancing a 4-inch-long giant cave roach on his hand during a recent interview in Los Angeles.
A former entomologist with the exhibits department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Mendez is so committed to insect welfare that he saw to it that all 2,500 cockroaches used in the movie were adopted out to good homes after the shoot. Most of them went to zoos and other institutions setting up live insect exhibits. Some were taken home by concerned film crew members who wanted the insects for pets.
Mendez says he purchased the roaches from a pesticide-testing company. After sparing them the death sentence, he couldn't then allow them to be killed.
``Once we had them for the movie, it wasn't OK for me to just take the roaches and say, `All right. We're done. Now they go back to the same company we bought them from.' Because I knew what was going to happen to them - they were all going to die.''
His adoption program was so successful, Mendez boasts, that ``if I had 60,000 roaches, I could have given them all away.''
Of course, not everyone connected to the movie was won over by Mendez's advocacy or the roaches' charm.
Ward, who plays the lovelOy and clean Lily, says she remains committed to squashing any roaches that find their way into her home - Mendez or not. Ward will co-star in NBC's ``Dark Skies'' this fall, a weekly ``X-Files''-type drama.
Ward admits that she had far more trouble working with the creepy critters of ``Joe's Apartment'' than did her co-star, O'Connell.
``I tried, but I was not having a good time with the cockroaches,'' she says. ``It's not that they're dirty. They're just so ugly.''
For one scene, Ward was required to draw a lipstick tube containing a roach close to her mouth without noticing the bug. But when the roach climbed out of its specially designed clip and onto her hand, she flung it across the room.
``They were so mad at me,'' she says of the cockroach-loving crew filming the scene. ``They knew they could never trust me again with a cockroach.''
In another scene, Ward and O'Connell are about to kiss when hundreds of cockroaches fall out of an overhead lamp and onto their laps. Although director Payson used a combination of real and fake roaches, Ward couldn't do the scene and was replaced by a body double.
But Ward says she would warm to roaches if they could talk and sing and dance like the computer-generated ones in the film.
``I like Joe's cockroaches,'' says Ward. ``They're charming and funny and they're good guys. And philosophically, those cockroaches got it going on. They're not responsible for new-age music and the hole in the ozone. They're just trying to survive.''
Mendez says he hopes the movie will spark the dawn of a new era in mankind's relationship with bugs. After all, who could watch roaches sing a country ballad on a scummy toaster oven and not have a new appreciation for the pests?
``This movie has opened a wonderful window of opportunity,'' says Mendez, who got his break in Hollywood when Jonathan Demme tapped him to handle the moths in ``Silence of the Lambs.''
``I can tell people, `Quit being afraid. Roaches are not out to get you.' ''
The film: ``Joe's Apartment'' (PG-13; language, violence).
The stars: Jerry O'Connell, Megan Ward, Don Ho, Robert Vaughn.
Behind the scenes: Written and directed by John Payson, based on his short film. Produced by Diana Phillips and Bonni Lee. Released by Warner Bros.
Running time: One hour, 28 minutes.
Photo: (1--Cover--Color) `Joe's Apartment'
MTV hits thebig screen with a cast of thousands (OK, so they are cockroaches)
(2) ``I tried, but I was not having a good time with the cockroaches,'' says co-star Megan Ward. ``It's not that they're dirty. They're just so ugly.''
(3) ``Nothing will ever seem as messy to me as Joe's apartment as long as I live,'' says actor Jerry O'Connell. ``It was so authentic ... that after a few days it began to smell.''
Tina Gerson/Daily News
(4) `I have real passion about insects and about getting people to not be afraid of them.'
David Sprague/Daily News