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Bates played Charlie Bates and then The Artful Dodger in the U.S. national tour of Cameron Mackintosh's Oliver!. He was to appear in the 2006 film The Good Shepherd as Edward Wilson Jr. at the age of 13, but his scenes were deleted from the theatrical release. His scenes can be found on the film's DVD. He was also offered the part in the epic movie 300, playing Leonidas at the age of 15, but had to turn down the part because he could not go bald due to his commitment to Billy Elliot the Musical and The Good Shepherd. In the fall of 2010, Bates enrolled at the Juilliard School, where he is studying acting
Bates has played the part of Billy in Billy Elliot the Musical on the West End at the Victoria Palace Theatre. He was the first American to play the part of Billy on the West End and first American ever, even though it had not yet opened on Broadway. In November 2005 at preliminary auditions for Billy in the U.S., he went to the audition, being 15 when the cut-off age was 14; but director Stephen Daldry, realizing Colin would be too old for the Broadway production but also realizing his potential, brought Bates to London a few weeks later with his family to start rehearsals and debuted on March 13, 2006. Bates has appeared on the CBBC Channel talking about his role as Billy Elliot. He was also featured on the musical's December 2006 electronic press kittrailer. Bates left Billy Elliot on February 24, 2007.
Bates moved back to Los Angeles, California, in 2008 to pursue his acting career. He was playing the bass and singing in the rock band "The North Coast" alongside Willis Brindley (guitar and vocals), Kevin Wrzesinski (guitar and vocals), Bobi Brindley (drums), and Brent Richardson (drums). Bates left the band to attend college.