Xander Slays His Demon

May 2001

Reliving his adolescence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Nicholas Brendon has had to contend with all the typical teenage trials, not to mention a few supernatural twists. But the one nightmare he hasn't had to face was the one that haunted him in real life -- stuttering. "As far back as I can remember, it was a challenge," he says during an interview on the phone from his Hollywood Hills home.

Since 1996, Brendon, now 30, has played Buffy's wisecracking sidekick Xander. Delivering those witty one-liners is a testament to his perseverance in overcoming his lifelong speech affliction, shared with an estimated 3 million Americans. Though he has improved through practicing tongue-twisters and slowing down his speech, Brendon admits he still struggles. "I work on it," he explains. "I had to retrain my brain."

Working with other sufferers

That's why Brendon is the Stuttering Foundation of America's 2001 honorary chairperson. "It was something that I feel very, very close to," he says. "It's been very rewarding." According to Jane Fraser, president of the Memphis-based foundation, founded in 1947, Brendon's involvement with the educational and informational organization has really helped it reach out to younger sufferers. "Nick is the first person we've had that really appeals to the school-age kids, so this is just opening up a whole world for us," she says. (Past spokespeople have included broadcast journalist John Stossel and Annie Glenn, wife of astronaut John Glenn.)

Though Brendon has a slew of adoring Web sites devoted to him, when he was younger he couldn't have felt less like a teen dream. "Approaching girls and dating was non-existent," he says. Playing baseball was his salvation. "I think that was something to do so I wouldn't have to talk to people," Brendon says. "I was alone a lot doing it in my backyard." Interestingly -- though not unusually -- Brendon's identical twin brother, Kelly, who is three minutes older, did not share his problem. The twins also have two younger brothers, Christian, 18, and Kyle, 17.

Started acting to stop stuttering

Brendon first pursued acting when he was 20 years old and decided to take an acting class to help his speech. His mother, Kathy, a talent agent (father Bob is a car dealer) encouraged him. "I was talking to God, and [acting] seemed like the most terrifying thing in the world," Brendon explains. "And the answer was, 'Well, then, do it.' " But it wasn't so simple. Though he scored a few commercials, Brendon found that his self-imposed pressure to succeed made his stuttering worse. "I was starting to stutter more, so I quit," he says.

He took on various jobs, including a stint as a waiter and a production assistant on the sitcom Dave's World -- "I was fired from all my jobs," he jokes -- but returned to acting when he was 25. "I was more in control and having fun instead of having the pressure on me."

Soon, he got an agent and in 1996, he auditioned for Buffy, winning the role of her best male friend, Alexander Harris. What drew him to the show was Xander's way with words. "I liked the dialogue -- I just had fun saying it," Brendon says, adding with a laugh, "saying it in my very unique way of acting -- long pauses where they shouldn't be, stuttering here and there."

"He's such a sweet kid," he says of his TV alter ego, who has gone from high school cut-up to young man with his own job, apartment and (former demon) girlfriend. "He's growing up, and I'm very, very pleased with my character. It's just been a lovely, easy ride."

Engaged to be married

And he is equally happy about his personal life. Brendon is engaged to actress Tressa DiFiglia, 29, and the couple is busy planning their September 2001 wedding. As a pre-wedding break, they'll travel to Europe for five weeks, a mix of vacation and work: He will be giving motivational speeches, something that once would have made him shake-in-his-shoes nervous.

Foundation president Fraser says that Brendon's commitment to helping other stutterers through public service announcements, charity events and a cyber-campaign in which kids write in and ask him questions, has been incredible. "He's been just wonderful," she says. "I think he has tremendous determination to deal with this problem on a daily basis and become the actor that he's become."

Brendon, for his part, just hopes to make a difference in the lives of fellow sufferers. "I want to raise as much money as possible," he says matter-of-factly. "You need the money to pay the people that are gonna help these kids and that helps with the problem."

Story: Serena Kappes

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