On the Manhattan set of Joe's Apartment, a romantic comedy starring Jerry O'Connell and 5,000 cockroaches the big, gooney kind some people call Ray Mendez ''the bug trainer.'' But with roaches, Mendez says admiringly, ''you can't really train them, you have to wrangle them.'' Mendez has already tied a tiny cowboy hat on an extra-huge Trinidadian roach. Now he loops fishing line around a thick black water bug and attaches it to O'Connell's blue blazer.
Like everyone else on the Joe's set, O'Connell isn't merely tolerant of roaches. He's gone roach-wacky: ''There was one scene where I was to put rubber roaches in my mouth. I suggested we use live ones. Otherwise it would've looked fake. I could feel their feelers against the roof of my mouth.'' Gross but there's more. ''He did two takes,'' marvels John Payson, writer-director of the $13 million film, which metamorphosed from his MTV short. Payson, who endured six-legged roommates in a Lower East Side tenement, is supplementing his cast of thousands with animated roaches that sing and dance. But he's grateful to Mendez's troupe. Rather than condemn them to death in dive Roach Motels, the cast and crew embraced an adopt-a-roach program. People are actually signing up.