Mike Hughes meets Dominic Colenso, who is using his considerable acting and directing experience on a new stage in his career.
Dominic Colenso has one of those faces. You’re sure you’ve seen him before but can’t think where you would have met. The likely answer is that you might have seen him in the multi-million dollar Thunderbirds film, where he played Virgil Tracy, or perhaps as Prince Andrew in Whatever Love Means or as David in Stephen Poliakoff’s 2003 film The Lost Prince.
Yes, he’s THAT Dominic Colenso. So why are we talking in his office in a business centre near York? Dominic has written his own script for this role – as the head of In Flow Training, which teaches teamwork, leadership and presentation skills to individuals and businesses.
He has spent many of his 34 years getting himself into other people’s personalities and thinking as others do. For Dominic this is a natural extension of that – as an entrepreneur, there have to be ways of selling your image to someone and making them believe in you. It’s about how you breathe, how you stand and how you make the most of your four or five minute slot in a boardroom.
“I had been doing some work for companies while I was acting and started to think about it as a possible business,” Dominic explains at his office in the York Eco Business Centre in Clifton Moor. “But like any start-up in Yorkshire, In Flow itself began as an idea, which led to me trying some things that worked and some that didn’t. I put a lot of time into getting some content out there on You Tube and having something people could use early on.
“As I pulled the threads together and people started to get to know what I was doing, I started to get referrals from companies who might have seen me at events like MADE or Venturefest and had a situation they wanted me to look at.
“That might be a firm wanting to get investment into its business and needing presentation skills or perhaps someone IT-based who now finds they need to get out and pitch and sell the brand.
“I think I provide a good blank canvas on which people can put their ideas and talk through their targets and act as a role model for what I teach. People are always interested, but it can take anything up to six months to convert that into a sale.”
For Dominic, this is not a matter of putting on a mask and pretending to be someone you are not. The In Flow techniques are about revealing the full potential of your personality and skills – what you are capable of that you might not have realised before.
It has been said that we only use about 10% of our brain’s potential. We become content with that because it is enough to get us through our lives. But what would we be capable of if we had another 20 or 30% to work with.
That saying might ring a bell with BQ entrepreneurs. Rather than put up with that 10%, they squeeze every last drop out of themselves to make their business work. Their determination helps them dig deep and access the hidden percentage. “I encourage people to work in groups because you can learn from other people and create an environment where you can let your guard down,” says Dominic. “There is no theory or PowerPoint to start things off, we must get up and do it. I tell them they have a body and a voice to use and it is up to me to help them find which bits of themselves they want to turn up and which they want to turn down.
“We all have different stages in our lives, whether that is a stage at home, a stage at work or a stage down the pub. On each of those stages we play a different role – I am a dad, a husband, a business owner, a trainer or a best mate.
“You give different parts of yourself to those relationships and decide which one to use on each occasion.”
When he was a teenager living in Germany where he was studying for the all-encompassing International Baccalaureate, Dominic took the chance to go to Africa and help teach in a school. The ability to talk to people and make an impact has stayed with him and helped shape his career. His parents were completely supportive when he opted for acting ahead of law and his own confidence was already showing: “I remember thinking: if this acting doesn’t work out I’ll just go back and do law the next time around...”
As a trainer, he can see nerves and a lack of confidence as a session starts, but can turn that to a freedom later in the day and likes nothing better than receiving follow-up letters and emails about a job success. In Japan when he was promoting Thunderbirds the fans were almost storming the hotel and the cast had to be whisked away, but now Dominic aims for the applause of a roomful of business leaders.
“There is a curiosity about the people I work with, particularly the entrepreneurs. They are genuinely excited to see what happens and how far they can go and what challenges they will face. But none of us are Teflon – as an actor you certainly need a resilience because you need to get used to not getting 90 per cent of the work you go for.
“Earlier in my career I pinned my hopes on every audition, but as an entreprenuer you can’t do that all the time. You just have to give the best performance you can each time as your side of the bargain and realise it is not always your fault if it doesn’t happen.
“You still have to nurture the relationship with the person who has just turned you down because just because people said ‘no’ now doesn’t mean they will say ‘no’ later.”
As he came to appreciate this himself as a young man, he was offered a place at Drama Centre in London, where Tom Hardy was in the year above him and Michael Fassbender had just left. With about 90 in the school, it was an exciting and inspiring three years. In his final year he got the role in Poliakoff’s The Lost Prince working alongside Michael Gambon, Tom Hollander and Bill Nighy – for whom Dominic also took the key role of holding the umbrella while Bill had a smoke between takes!
“I just wanted to spend as much time with these people as possible – sitting in make-up with them, chatting as often as possible and getting advice from Michael Gambon who simply told me to never turn anything down, just go and have the experience and learn from it.
“I was then in a drama in Chichester and then the next thing was Thunderbirds.” The US$50m film, released in 2004 and directed by Star Trek actor Jonathan Frakes, starred Bill Paxton as Jeff Tracy, head of the family’s International Rescue organisation based on Tracy Island in the Pacific.
Dominic sets the scene: “I had an agent when I was at Drama Centre who was getting me some good parts and he got me an audition for Thunderbirds with Mary Selway, the casting legend who had worked on iconic films such as Withnail and I, Star Wars and Love Actually.
“I went to her offices and had a few lines to read and we had a chat. It was quite a moment, but one thing I teach my businesses is how to control that emotion and nervousness and it is very much down to how you use your body and how you breathe.”
The reading went well and with her advice of ‘work on that accent’ Mary sent Dominic to another audition, this time with Jonathan Frakes. Arriving into a room “full of people who looked like me” made him think about how he could stand out and the answer seemed obvious. Be yourself and have self-belief.
Things had obviously improved between the two events, as Frakes’ verdict was ‘Now there’s an American accent!’ and the role was eventually his. “But fame is a very fickle thing,” he reflects. “The adoring Thunderbirds fans might also have seen me in The Lost Prince, or an episode of Doctors, but there was no context for the mania, particularly in Japan where we were like Beatles with girls waiting everywhere and paparazzi knowing just where we would be.
“The premiere there was at The Budokan, where our film voices were provided by Japan’s biggest boy band, V6, who arrived with us through the floor in swirls of steam in front of an audience of 6,000.”
Thunderbirds was intended to be a trilogy and Dominic had seen his £1m contract for the third film, but reviews were mixed and there wasn’t enough money made at the American box office, so the cast never got past the original.
So from 6,000 fans at the Budokan to a two-desk office outside York is quite a journey, but it is a personal one for him. His content and thoughtful persona proves he can enjoy the success and fanbase movies and theatre work have brought but can also step back and assess himself to see what he has learned and realise the wider implications of those skills.
In 2007 seven weeks of filming the lead role of Luke in the Simon Cowell-backed Rock Rivals TV series with all its headlines and X-Factor glamour came to an abrupt end when Cowell wanted to change actors because he didn’t think the look was right.
Start-up businesses who are confident in their product will need to be used to these refusals and eventually treat it as a change of direction. The test of self-belief is the confidence that the person who has just given you the bad news may not be right, or if they are then it just needs to be taken on board as advice and not the end of the challenge.
“I’m glad my attitude with my career has been to enjoy every minute of it, but don’t take it all too seriously, otherwise I would have hit the ground with quite a bump.” says Dominic.
“I realised that as an actor there are so many factors that were out of my reach it can never be a linear career and the task of getting more work is actually made more difficult because people presume you are busy because you’re that 23-year-old guy who was in the Thunderbirds film, so you won’t have time for this project or that production.
“There were some roles out there, but I also loved the directing side. As an actor you are one part of a jigsaw, but as a director you are facilitating the talent of loads of different people which is one of the reason I like my work as a business trainer. In Flow bases much of its work around breathing techniques, which Dominic knows well “having spent much of my three years at Drama Centre lying on the floor practising it”, and for him it is about realising you have a choice – and can have control – over how you perform.
“Think of the way Jonny Wilkinson places the rugby ball, makes that exact pattern with that exact swing, places his arms, looks up and down. I can guarantee that he is working on his breathing as well.
“It’s not that there is one prescribed process for breathing during a high-profile performance, but more that you are in control. If you are breathing up in the chest, then you are facilitating the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism and pumping adrenalin around the body, but if you are breathing lower the alignment and space is right and the body is in the position it was designed to be in.”
The business is also in the position it was designed to be in, with wife Laura joining as 22-month daughter Nell starts at nursery. Laura will spread the word about a buy-one-give-one scheme where for every day the business is working on a contract, they will bank an hour to work with local schools.
“We want people to get what we are doing as early as possible and it shocks me that they don’t teach this sort of relaxation and breathing techniques in schools. It is about confidence and the ability to make eye contact and why it is important even for children as young as seven or eight to be comfortable in their own skin.
“I am very serious about turning In Flow into something incredible and tangible. It is not just a little lifestyle business, I want it to be the go-to provider for communications training in Yorkshire over the next couple of years.
“I am not an out-of-work actor looking for something else to do, I am using what I have learned from all my past experiences and applying them to a different problem and give the business different strands. That’s the entrepreneur in me.”
Dominic’s next role, growing his company, may well be his most challenging and the spotlight will be well and truly turned towards him. But with such experiences behind him and the ability to use them to fuel a new journey, it might not be too long before businesses are saying: ‘Isn’t that Dominic Colenso? He’s the guy who runs In Flow Training...’.