Memento and the Significance of Sammy Jankis

Stephen Tobolowsky on how Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending movie Memento was anything but Groundhog Day

Stephen Tobolowsky as Sammy Jankis in Memento
Photo: Newmarket Capital Group

“Have I told you about Sammy Jankis?”  

On March 16, 2001, Christopher Nolan announced himself to the world with the US release of Memento. Not that everyone heard him straight away.

Despite garnering rave reviews on the festival circuit, Nolan’s mind-bending jigsaw puzzle of a movie failed to land a major distribution deal in the States. In the end Newmarket Films, the independent production company bankrolling the project, took the plunge and distributed it themselves. 

Memento went on to earn more than $45 million at the US box office from a $4.5 million budget – a huge sum for an independent film.

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Within five years, Nolan would move on to bigger and Bat-er things, but Memento remains among his most ambitious and effective films to date. A non-linear neo-noir that doubles up as a psychological thriller, it’s a film that continues to offer up subtle surprises on repeat viewing.

Guy Pearce takes centre stage with a mesmeric performance as Leonard, a man with short-term memory loss trying to track down his wife’s murderer. His pursuit is hampered by an inability to create new memories. 

It’s a similarly disorientating experience for viewers who must piece together Leonard’s story while it plays out in reverse order. Allied to this is the story of Sammy Jankis, played by Stephen Tobolowsky, which intersperses that of Leonard’s and plays out across a series of black-and-white scenes shown in chronological order. 

Narrated by Leonard, from an apparent recollection of a case he took during days as an insurance investigator, like our protagonist, Sammy also claims to be anterograde amnesiac – and that’s not all they have in common.

The film continues to alternate between the two narratives, with Leonard obsessively telling the tale of Sammy to anyone who will listen, before the two stories eventually converge in a climax where their shared plight becomes painfully apparent. 

Despite its modest budget, Memento boasted an impressive cast. Pearce had shot to mainstream fame with LA Confidential a few years earlier while Joe Pantoliano, who played Leonard’s helper/fixer Teddy, was an established figure in the business along with his co-star from The Matrix, Carrie Anne Moss.

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There was even a role for future Sons of Anarchy star and Nolan favourite Mark Boone Junior as the underhand manager of the motel where Leonard lives. Tobolowsky more than held his own though. 

A seasoned character actor, by the time Memento came around he had enjoyed a memorable turn in Groundhog Day as the hilariously grating insurance agent Ned Ryerson. But it hadn’t been without its drawbacks in the years that followed.

Tobolowsky explained to Den of Geek: “The good news and bad news of being Ned in Groundhog Day is, guess what? You’re going to be Ned in Groundhog Day for the rest of your career. A lot of times when people are in comedic roles and want to do something more dramatic, it’s not available to them. Especially with something like Groundhog Day. An actor like me could get an opportunity to be in a drama but it might not work out because the audience would still see Ned Ryerson. Not this role. Sammy Jankis was so remarkably different.”

Landing the role of Jankis proved remarkably different too, starting with Nolan’s script, based on a short story written by his brother Jonathan called Memento Mori.

“My agent called me up and said John Papsidera, a casting director, wanted me to take a look at this script. John had a reputation for doing really unusual and generally good movies so I was very happy to. A standard first draft script is usually around 120 pages before a producer or director gets their hands on it. Because of the way it is formatted, one page should equal around one minute of screen time. I got the screenplay for Memento and it was like the Old and New Testament combined. I had never seen a script so big. I don’t remember the exact page numbers but it was in the 300s.”

Having seen his fair share of scripts over the years, Tobolowksy was apprehensive about reading what looked like the equivalent of “Gone with the Wind times ten.”

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“I was thinking to myself ‘Oh God, this is going to be terrible. ’I even said to my wife, ‘ I know it’s going to be awful. It’s three times longer than normal but I’m going to read it just to be a good sport.’ I start reading and I’m halfway through and my wife comes in and I’m saying ‘damn it, damn it’ and she says ‘Terrible?’ and I say ‘No, so far really great but there’s no way these writers can continue at this level. It’s going to crap out by the end.”

“I get to the end and I throw the script across the room and my wife hears me, comes in, and says ‘Terrible?’ and I say ‘No, quite possibly the best script I’ve ever read.’” Nolan’s script was unlike any Tobolowsky had read, bringing the filmmaker’s vision for the movie to life in stunning detail.

“Chris and Jonathan wrote it in a way where they describe exactly what the camera is doing. Everything was perfectly described and you got a picture of the movie in your head, backwards and forwards in time. It was mind-blowing. I called up my agent immediately and said I had to meet Chris Nolan. I had to talk to him about Sammy Jankis.”

Despite few lines, the role of Sammy was a significant one. A part that much of the film’s plot ultimately rested on. Determined to make the role his own and shake off the ghost of Ned, Tobolowsky met with Nolan knowing he had a unique selling point when it came to the role. 

“I said ‘Chris, I didn’t come here to read for you. There’s nothing really for me to read, but this is what I want to tell you: this is quite possibly one of the best screenplays ever written. You are going to have actors all over this city that will want to be in this. However, I am going to be the only person that wants to be Sammy Jankis who has actually had amnesia.’ 

Chris said: ‘You’ve had amnesia?’ and I was like ‘Yes, and this is how it happened…’”

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Tobolowsky explained that during surgery for a kidney stone, doctors had used an experimental drug in place of the standard anesthesia.

“I’m a big guy, like six foot three and 210 pounds, so they gave me a new drug that they had been using on bigger people. It means they are able to give instructions to the patient like to get up on the operating table, rather than have orderlies lifting them. The patient performs the task and then forgets it had happened. It worked the same with the pain.”

It led to what he describes as “drug induced amnesia” as the medication worked its way through his system. “I would be in my living room and then boom! It was like I was just born. The worst was when I was standing over the toilet and suddenly didn’t know if I was about to pee or if I had already peed. Fortunately, I heard my wife yell ‘you finished ten minutes ago!’”

The description of his ordeal was enough to convince Nolan he was the man for the job – but that was only the start of the challenge for Tobolowsky.

“It was the most difficult part I have ever played in my life. When you are an actor, the thing that moves you through a scene is your motivation. But when your character can’t remember anything, you don’t have that.”

In order to better portray Sammy’s damaged mind, he began by breaking down the character’s actions into behaviors marked as either old or new.

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“There are the old, every day, behaviors we don’t think about like making breakfast. The rote nature of that behavior means you might do it quickly, almost mechanically. Then there is the newer stuff that takes longer because you are trying to understand what you are doing for the first time. 

“I had met people who have lost their memory, through Alzheimer’s or an accident, and noticed how these old behaviors were still familiar to them.”

This attention to detail was not lost on audiences.

In one small but memorable moment, Sammy greets Leonard at the door of his home with a look Leonard initially believes to be recognition and proof he is faking his condition.

It’s only later, when Leonard begins to understand his own plight, that Nolan has us revisit that same look, only this time with the realisation Sammy’s expression is instead one of desperate hope with that complex duality perfectly conveyed by Tobolowsky.

“That look was about putting out a message saying ‘I am sorry I may know you, so I don’t want to embarrass myself or you by acting like I don’t know you,’” Tobolowsky explains.

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Later, after Leonard has rejected Sammy’s insurance claim, his wife, played by Frasier star Harriet Sansom Harris, decides to test the theory for herself by having him administer shot after shot of insulin, in the hope he will realise his mistake before she suffers a fatal overdose.

It’s then that we see Tobolowsky channeling the mechanical, emotionless actions of old, going through the motions of giving his wife the shot, as he has always done, oblivious to the tragic implications for both characters.

But Sammy is oblivious, with Tobolowsky’s emotionless, robotic approach to the repeated injections – something he has done for years – adding a layer of tragedy simultaneously to both characters.

“We all worked it out together in the moment. You let the truth emerge from the scene in the moment the camera is running.”

Guy Pearce in Memento

However, the true significance of Sammy in the wider story of Leonard only fully emerges later in the film after the latter’s revelatory encounter with Teddy.

It’s Teddy who reveals that he has been using Leonard to kill criminal associates. He claims to have tracked down the real “John G” behind the murder of Leonard’s wife years ago and, most tellingly, that Sammy’s story is actually Leonard’s, created to absolve himself of guilt. 

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Which begs the question: Are Sammy and Leonard simply one and the same person? And, if so, did Leonard kill his wife by accident?

While some degree of ambiguity remains, Tobolowsky says such notions played into Nolan’s decision to include a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where Sammy, holed up in an old folk’s home, is for a brief flash, replaced by Leonard. 

“Chris played with the idea on set. He said he had an idea for a moment where he would replace me with Guy. He wanted to try that out. That was determined while filming, the idea of the switch, which cements the idea of the two characters being one and the same. 

“Chris was mining the depths of his script in the moment, which takes nerve as an artist.  “

Reflecting on the experience, Tobolowsky only has positive memories of his experience on Memento, and the commitment shown by Pearce – particularly when it came to the tattoos that serve as reminders to Leonard of his past and forgotten present.

“Guy Pearce was just magnificent,” he says. “Every day, he would be in the chair getting those tattoos put on or removed. There would be long make-up breaks to get them adjusted perfectly and Chris would have it so that we would be shooting while Guy was in the makeup trailer.”

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“Chris was a fabulous director to work with. Full of good humour and insight. The entire shoot was filled with energy and fun and that came from the top. I knew right away I was working with somebody very special. Chris takes chances.”

Tobolowsky holds his experience on Memento in the highest regard.

“When you do a lot of shows and movies, the idea is not how many you can squeeze in, it’s about which ones mattered to you.  The work you did that affected you as a person and an artist. Something like Memento is profoundly affecting with the questions it asks.

“What haunts me about Sammy Jankis was that idea that if you cannot remember what you do, both your sins and your blessings, what kind of hell are you in?  That final scene where Sammy is the old folk’s home, there is this question: Is he at peace? If you don’t know what is happening to you, what is your life? And what happens to Leonard? 

He also credits the film with changing his career for the better.

“After I did Memento, I was considered for all sorts of roles that I wouldn’t have been before. It broke the Groundhog Day mold and showed what I was capable of. 

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“There have been so many movies I have been in. Some terrible, some mediocre and a few classics. It always comes down to the script and director. Memento is one of the good ones. It’s a masterpiece. There’s nothing quite like it.”