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Michelle the Slayer's Sister

Last spring, Michelle Trachtenberg, a devoted fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a pal of its star Sarah Michelle Gellar, was invited by Gellar to come hang out on the set. Of course, the 15-year-old actress was only too happy to take her friend up on the offer. She had no clue that her visit would be the catalyst for scoring her next job. "I went and they were shooting the season finale," she explains on the phone from her Los Angeles home. "I got to meet Joss [Whedon, the show's creator and executive producer] there. Then a couple of weeks later I got a call to read for Dawn."

Dawn Summers, Buffy's younger sister -- who's actually the key to another world in human form -- is the newest addition to the show, now in its fifth season. Though Whedon had seen "a good number" of actresses for the coveted part of the precocious and slightly pesky teen, Gellar encouraged him to meet with Trachtenberg. He agreed and once the long-locked actress with the kewpie doll face ran lines with him, his search was over. "She got to a very real, dramatic, intense place that nobody else had come close to," Whedon says of Trachtenberg. "She tucked it under her arm and walked away with it."

For Trachtenberg, such praise is becoming common. In 1996, Rosie O'Donnell, who co-starred with her in that year's Harriet the Spy, told Entertainment Weekly that she was "the hottest 11-year-old actress in the country." But Trachtenberg doesn't let such accolades go to her head. And she credits her mom, Lana, who's also her manager, with keeping her grounded -- literally. "Hopefully I'll never ever go on an ego trip or get very diva-esque," Trachtenberg says. "I mean, I get grounded if I don't clean my room. I have to do my chores and the whole thing."

Decided to act at age 3

Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of Russian émigrés Lana and engineer Michael (she also has an older sister, Irene, 21, a recent college graduate) had a passion for being in the spotlight from a very early age. At the age of 3, Trachtenberg says, she realized she wanted to be an actress. "I was watching TV and saw a little girl braiding Barbie's hair and I was like, 'I can do that,' " she recalls. She convinced her mom to let her try it, got a manager and quickly booked her first audition, a Wisk detergent commercial.

Trachtenberg's career soon took off -- in 1993 she scored a supporting role in the Nickelodeon series The Adventures of Pete & Pete and in 1994, she began a two-year stint as autistic Lily Montgomery on All My Children, where she met Gellar. "On the set, Sarah was like a big sister -- she would take me into her dressing room and we would play around between scenes. We would find a way to sneak around and have fun," Trachtenberg says.

Sneaking around became her trademark when she starred in 1996's ultra-successful Harriet the Spy, based on the 1964 Louise Fitzhugh novel. Ten-year-old Trachtenberg played the pint-sized super-snoop and it earned her movie star credentials. "It was a breakthrough-type role," she agrees. "I was really honored to be a part of that." It also led to other roles, in TV series like the short-lived sitcom Meego and the 1999 feature film Inspector Gadget (with Matthew Broderick).

Now firmly settled in Los Angeles (Trachtenberg relocated to the West Coast with her mom three years ago, though her dad still lives in New York), she says she's thrilled to be a series regular on Buffy. The straight-A high school sophomore is tutored on the set and Whedon says Trachtenberg's presence has been downright infectious. "She's just always bouncing around, very perky," he explains. "She's so excited that for the people who have been doing this for a long time, we're kind of buoyed by it. We're like, 'Oh, yeah, this is a lot of fun!' "

Works with anti-drug charities

In her spare time, Trachtenberg loves to read (the Harry Potter series is her favorite), go bowling with her Buffy castmates, and write in her journal. She's also extremely active in a number of anti-drug charity causes and even met President Clinton in 1998 when as a youth ambassador she helped him promote The Coalition for a Drug-Free America. "If I can stop one kid from doing drugs, then I've really accomplished something," she says passionately.

Though Trachtenberg plans to continue with her acting career (she stars as Dorothy alongside Annette Bening and Mark Hamill in an upcoming audio version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), she emphasizes that education is her first priority. "I think education is one of the most important things offered in the world," the serious student, who'd love to attend Yale University one day, says. "I try to set my goals high and I work hard to reach them."

--Serena Kappes

The Usual
The Usual

Random Quotage:

See... I've had a lot of people talking at me the last few days. Everyone just lining up to tell me how unimportant I am. And I've finally figured out why. Power. I have it. They don't. This bothers them.
-Buffy (Checkpoint)

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