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By Leena Tailor.

From bursting into laughter while watching his Instagram Lives to sharing deep and meaningful chats or glancing over mid-performance to see him rocking out side of stage, Tyler Hilton is remembering and missing his late friend Aaron Carter.

The musician and “One Tree Hill” alum was friends with Carter, who passed away on Nov. 5, for two decades. And while he worried Carter’s recent struggles wouldn’t end well, hearing he had been found dead at his California home at age 34 was a shock.

“Every time I saw him, I hugged him like it might have been the last time,” Hilton tells ET Canada. “It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a gut punch. You think something like that’s going to happen, but you’re always hoping they’ll pull through.”

“When he had a kid, I thought, ‘Cool, this might [help],’” Hilton continues about Carter’s one-year-old son, Prince. “I’m surprised he kept it together as long as he did given how troubled he was, but he was such a good kid and I’ll love him forever. And that’s not just talking about someone because they’re gone — it’s something I would’ve said if he was still here, and I wish he was.”

Hilton, 39, met Carter when the “Fool’s Gold” singer was around 14 and says the universe “kept bringing us back together.” In 2019, they hit the road together with O-Town as part of the Pop 2000 Tour, during which Carter never missed Hilton’s set.

“He was such a fan of my music, which is so random, but every time I played, he’d be side stage and knew all the words,” says Hilton, who once had Carter hanging off the front of his RV following a gig. “It was like Antwon Tanner from ‘One Tree Hill’ — a totally random Tyler fan! And not as a favor to me or because we were friends, but because he genuinely connected with my music. It was so endearing.”

Hilton was just as big of a fan of “so talented” Carter, whose 2018 album LØVË featured the single “Sooner Or Later”, which earned 75 million Spotify streams.

 

“If you saw him live, you’d realize this wasn’t just that narrative of some younger brother of a famous guy trying to ride those coattails,” Hilton says about Carter, who followed his older brother, Backstreet Boys member Nick Carter, into the music industry at a young age. “I don’t know Nick, but Aaron could sing his ass off, work a crowd, dance well and make great music. He was a consummate performer and I think it’s surprising to some people how good he was.”

“He was struggling with a bunch of stuff and people would say, ‘That guy’s out there,’ and I’d go, ‘I’m friends with him and really like him!’” Hilton continues. “He was such a sweet boy and we always had a wonderful time hanging backstage, just talking or sharing a smoke. Our hangs were so real and deep.” 

Hilton’s favorite part of their friendship was how much Carter made him laugh. He chuckles recalling the time Carter live-streamed his entire journey to Los Angeles hot spot The Grove to buy Kobe steaks, then continued streaming as he went home and cooked them.

“Another time, he went, ‘I’m gonna jump off my balcony into my pool,’ and did it while still holding his phone,” Hilton laughs. “The stream cut out when he hit the water. The way he took things so far was hilarious. Sometimes it was destructive and I think people like that have some kind of genius they don’t know how to control, but he killed me with how funny he was.”

As much as he loved watching Carter’s adventures, Hilton worried about the performer as he battled addiction and mental health issues. Having entered showbiz when he was 15, Hilton’s well aware of the struggles that can come with fame, addiction and the music industry.

The “Walk the Line” star, who lives in Ontario with Canadian actress/director wife Megan Park and their two-year-old daughter Winnie, spent years drinking and partying before a rager in New York the night before a significant audition prompted him to get sober.

“I came home and told Megan and my best friend and I was in tears because I was bummed about giving up something I love,” he told ET in 2019. “It’s hard, especially if you love booze! But I wanted something more. My life was in a boring loop — hungover in the morning and busy at night. I finally realized there was so much more to life.”

Attending meetings and revamping his social circle, Hilton turned his life around. He released 2019 album City on Fire and is now focused on being a stay-at-home dad to Winnie, while Park rides a career high with directorial projects like 2021 film “The Fallout” and upcoming movie “My Old Ass”.

Coverage of the CBS holiday movie WHEN CHRISTMAS WAS YOUNG, scheduled to air on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: Karen David as Melody Douglass and Tyler Hilton as Luke Dawson. Photo: Dean Buscher/CBS ©2022 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Coverage of the CBS holiday movie WHEN CHRISTMAS WAS YOUNG, scheduled to air on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: Karen David as Melody Douglass and Tyler Hilton as Luke Dawson. Photo: Dean Buscher/CBS ©2022 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
— Photo: Dean Buscher/CBS

However, he took a break from daddy duty for CBS’s upcoming Nashville-themed flick, “When Christmas Was Young”. Starring as a music manager trying to secure rights to a hit song for his only remaining client, the role saw him revisiting aspects of his former rock-and-roll lifestyle. 

“It’s almost easier to play that stuff when you’re not in it because you can see things more objectively,” Hilton says about the clarity he gained once sober. “There are so many things we take for granted and it’s the same with drinking, partying or any ego-driven stuff. I probably couldn’t have portrayed Luke as well if I was still in that mind-frame.

“But I also understand from that character’s perspective how cool and fun it feels at the time,” he adds. “You’re high on your own supply and it feels like you can keep that going forever… until you can’t.”

The film was executive produced by Sheryl Crow, who also penned the track at the center of the storyline. Crow and Hilton are former labelmates who previously ran in the same circles in Nashville — with Hilton once getting into trouble for hitting up her secret “moonshine guy.”

“I’d heard from somebody she had a guy in this corner store in Tennessee, who’d take you out back and give you his special moonshine,” Hilton explains. “I tried and he kicked me out! The next time I ran into her, she went, ‘You got me in trouble. What do you think you were doing rolling up there?’ But it was all in good fun! Now we’ve come full circle doing this movie together.”

See an exclusive preview of “When Christmas Was Young”, premiering Dec. 18, below.



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Ellen Bullock