‘Everything came from that’ – Producer James Dean ’89 on Life after Carolina

Jul 12, 2018

James Dean ’89 will be one of the featured SEVEN Speakers during the 2018 Morehead-Cain Alumni Forum, taking place October 19 through 21 in Chapel Hill.

When James Dean left Great Britain for Chapel Hill to start his undergraduate education, he had never been to the United States—let alone the South. 

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he says. “It’s one thing to go to America, but it’s another to go to North Carolina. You’re brought up with American television and film, and you think all of America is like New York or LA. When you get to North Carolina, everything is surprising—in the best way.”

James was confused by norms like the American retail convention of pricing products pre-tax. And nothing surprised him more than Carolina’s “mad passion” for basketball—“a sport which has absolutely no interest to Brits,” he laughs.

That cultural immersion is directly relevant to his work as a television producer today. Not only did UNC contacts help him land his early gigs in the industry, but his degree from Carolina gave him credibility when he was making hires for his latest project, a British show called Living the Dream. Before filming began, James was tasked with hiring crew in Savannah, Georgia.

“To be able to say ‘I was at Carolina’ completely changed their attitude toward me,” he says. “It was during March Madness that I came over during the year we won the championship. It was easy for me to fit in with the television production community in Savannah.”

James also served as a sort of linguistic consultant, making sure the script sounded appropriately American. After all, the writers were British.

James says his Morehead-Cain summers taught him the confidence and tenacity essential for succeeding in a fiercely competitive industry.

“You meet interesting people in all sorts of circumstances around the world, and that can prepare you quite well for my particular industry,” he says. “You’ve got to keep pushing for where you want to go. I am where I want to be now, but it’s definitely taken a while.”

James makes a point of paying it forward by hosting scholar visitors on-set whenever he can. He has also assisted with the British scholar selection process for the past two decades.

“The main thing I learned about myself was that, as someone who’s been in the British education system, as soon as I got to Carolina I suddenly felt my life was my own—I wasn’t living for anyone else,” he says. “That was the key to unlocking everything. You could shape your life the way you wanted to. It was revelatory.”

James enjoys helping bring that experience to other British students.

“The values I learned as a Morehead-Cain Scholar, I do continue to carry forward through my life. It’s about trying to lead a life that isn’t always about doing the obvious thing. A life that is about giving as well as taking. Trying to make a difference, trying to help other people less fortunate than ourselves.”

He says he can’t imagine his life without the Morehead-Cain.

“I ended up in Chapel Hill, and everything came from that. My ability to be in the industry I’m in really came from that. Most Americans I know are incredibly supportive and optimistic. They helped launch me into the career I wanted to be in.”

And he makes a habit of attending every Alumni Forum.

“To me, it’s just so special to be able to get together with my classmates. There are so many people to see and connect with and share experiences with. And it’s so well done, in such an optimistic and supportive environment. People who attend believe so strongly in the value of the scholarship and show up to maintain it and improve it and show love for it. I would never miss it.”


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