Like any other kid on a Sunday afternoon, Hunter Carson, 9, is at home, hanging out with a friend. A ring of dirt and sweat lines his neck, and his blond hair is tousled from playing with the army of robots, GoBots, Transformers and G.I. Joes in his bedroom. As the only child of actress Karen Black and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, Hunter has been a showbiz bystander almost from birth. But now, as the star of his first movie—Paris, Texas—he’s stage center. The visitor who has interrupted him at playtime is here for one of those bothersome interviews. Hunter is not pleased.
He volunteers a few remarks on the film. “Acting was hard,” he says, “but my mom helped me learn my lines. I felt like an actor when I was doing the movie, but now I don’t know.” He skipped the L.A. premiere of the film to watch one of his favorite TV shows, The A-Team, and he looks like he’d prefer to skip any more questions about himself. “I’m only going to say yes or no,” he warns.
He’s not really being rude; he’s being a kid. When Paris, Texas director Wim Wenders phoned to ask Hunter to be in his movie, the boy asked, “Is my mom in it?” When Hunter was told “No,” he then asked, “Can she be there with me?” The answer was yes. But Hunter had one other proviso: Wenders could not come over to interview him “until the cartoons are over.” So goes Hollywood deal-making, kiddie style.
For Wenders the reward is finding a first-rate child actor (“Carson plays with enormous, comic self-assurance,” raved the New York Times). The movie, about a boy abandoned by his parents and reunited with them years later, hit a more personal note for Hunter. He was not quite 4 when his parents divorced. And though he divides his time between Karen’s L.A. home and Kit’s Manhattan apartment, their careers often leave him in the care of a governess.
It helped that Kit was brought in to collaborate on the screenplay with Wenders and Sam Shepard. “There is a slight parallel between Hunter and me and the son and father in the film,” says Carson. “Hunter knew what was going on. I could see it in his eyes.” Kit recalls that after he and Karen separated, “I moved to New York and didn’t see Hunter for eight months. I felt there was some sort of crack between us. Then I came back to L.A. to take care of him while his mom was working. We slept in the king-size bed, and Hunter would sleep way over on the other side. After two weeks, I’d find him lying against me when I woke up in the morning. Kids don’t hold any grudges. They move too fast for the pain to stick.” Karen concurs: “He’s a self-determined kid. He’s not afraid to do and say what he wants.”
But like most kids, especially children of divorce, Hunter has problems. Ask Bonna Newman, his sometime governess. “No one else lasted more than three months,” says Newman, who has taken care of Hunter on and off since March 1983. “At first he would have me in tears. He wouldn’t turn off the television, he wouldn’t get dressed, and then he wouldn’t go to school.” Hunter agrees. “I hate school,” he says, “it takes away from playtime.” Bonna adds, “Hunter is brilliant, but he hates the structure of school. He’s had to be tutored all of his school life, and he’s always behind his classmates. This year he’s repeating the third grade [at the Apple School in Los Angeles] and is ahead of his class for the first time.”
Early on, Newman complained to Karen about Hunter’s high jinks. “She’d say, ‘Oh, he just wants you to cry.’ ” After three months Hunter told Newman he would have his mother fire her. Bonna said he couldn’t do that but that she would leave if he wished it. She apparently called his bluff. Hunter rethought his position and toed the line; he has ever since. As Newman sees it, doing Paris, Texas was the best thing that ever happened to Hunter. “He’s much different now than he was then,” she says. “The movie taught him to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘You’re welcome.’ ”
Kit says he predicted that reaction. “I wanted Hunter to do the movie for one reason: to learn about working in a group. I wanted him to know he could be good and make people feel great. So it was a moral lesson also.”
In addition to learning a few manners while on location, Hunter also managed to have fun. The first time he was on the set with Harry Dean Stanton, his screen father, Hunter told the actor to pour a cup of water over his head. He likes adults to look silly. Harry Dean complied and then said, “Now you have to do it.” They’ve been pals ever since.
Hunter’s relationship with screen mom Nastassja Kinski, who was three months pregnant when the film was shot, was gentler. “It was like a painful flirtation between the two of them at first,” says Wenders. “At one point he came up to me and said, ‘I don’t think she likes me.’ And she did the same. To let them get to know each other better, I piled them into a car and we took a long drive. I had Hunter and Nastassja shoot an 8-mm film of each other.”
The closeness only inspired Hunter’s rambunctiousness. One day between takes he was jumping up and down on a bed and accidentally poked Kinski in the stomach. Nobody had told Carson she was pregnant. When he found out, he kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Another time, when Nastassja was upset about a scene, he asked Newman to help him find a gift to cheer her up. They settled on a silk scarf. “I think it made her feel better from the way she hugged him,” says Bonna.
Hunter also learned to live with divorce, though Kit says he and Hunter “have never discussed it. Our divorce was as tough as anybody’s,” Kit continues. “We split because we stopped talking, and we both got very lonely. But I’ve tried to build a foundation for the two of us—some way to communicate. I don’t like to leave things torn up, and Karen gradually agreed.”
While Karen was filming an as-yet-untitled project in Pennsylvania recently, Kit moved into Karen’s home with Hunter and Karen’s boyfriend, actor-cameraman Stephen Duke. “When I first met Stephen, he was a bit unsure of what role he should play,” says Kit. “Finally it became clear that I was the father, and he was Hunter’s friend.” The same, says Kit, goes for Jenny Sunday, a singer in the group New York 88, who lives with Kit in New York.
Verbally, at least, Hunter remains remote. “Fame is beside the point for him,” says Karen. Hunter has received about a dozen offers since Paris, Texas. He has finished the role of Rip Van Winkle’s son in a Faerie Tale Theater segment for Showtime, directed by Francis Coppola. And he will finally star opposite his mom in an upcoming Tobe Hooper remake of the sci-fi movie Invaders from Mars.
Meanwhile, he finds other ways of expressing himself. At a New York press screening of Paris, Texas, Hunter clearly answered the question of whether seeing himself onscreen would turn him into Kit and Karen’s vanity production. “Way before the end of the movie,” Bonna Newman reports, “he got real bored and crawled onto my lap.”