Actor Tang Guoqiang, 56, is a multiple winner of the Golden Eagle Awards - the mainland's equivalent of the Emmys - and has starred in scores of TV dramas and films since his debut in 1975. He has played a number of Chinese emperors as well as military strategist Zhuge Liang in the 1990 TV adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He's now directing a TV series set during the Chinese civil war, before the communists took power in 1949. How do you understand the historical figures you play? I believe things all happen for a reason and that reason is rooted in history. The way to find the truth is to look back. It's necessary for people to learn from these legendary historical figures, unearthing the meanings beyond the superficial. We have a long and mysterious Chinese history that spans 5,000 years. There are glorious heroes of all times, and controversial figures that accelerate the process of civilisation as well. How do you balance history and aesthetics while playing these parts? Firstly, we have to find the reason why we are portraying each historical character or particular period in history, and how history can reflect on today's society. Then I need to find out how different I am from the character or if there are any similarities between us. It's not merely about imitating the character, it's about my perception of him. Say I'm portraying Zhuge Liang, I can never be exactly like him. I have to integrate my strength into the character's personality. The key is not only focus on imitation, but to put yourself in that character as well. How do you prepare? My research starts from the big picture of the time my character lived in. I try to understand the overall cultural background rather than focusing solely on the character's life. And I always try to memorise all the scripts before we start filming, and that can give me a lot of confidence in acting. How far have the characters influenced you? Playing those characters makes me a better person. Because I need to think like him and live his life, every time I play a new character it's a rejuvenating process for me. I find myself moved by what they did. The characters I have played have changed my way of seeing life. What do you find most challenging in your work? The recent historical figures are more challenging than the ancient ones. Because their relatives are still alive, they are the authorities who judge my performances. I also need to bear in mind audiences' tastes and values. These challenges are what I need as an actor. Have you seen Red Cliff? Yes. The Zhuge Liang [played by Takeshi Kaneshiro in John Woo Yu-sum's film] is quite different from the one I played, but it's understandable. The characters change with the production. It depends on the timing, taste and background of the film. Nothing is impossible in a film as long as it makes sense to the audiences and the characters are convincing. What's different about being an actor-director? As a director, I have to see a bigger picture and get hold of every detail. An actor only needs to mind his own part. I can't mess with history and I won't make a history documentary either. I have to take care of both filming and editing. It's a lot more responsibility, but I don't regret it - the only way to express yourself in this industry is to be a director. That's how I can present my ideas most originally and completely.