Jerry Maguire's Cameron Crowe and Jerry O'Connell honored Kelly Preston after her death on Sunday

By Alexia FernandezKara Warner and Elizabeth Leonard
July 13, 2020 10:11 PM

Kelly Preston's Jerry Maguire costar and director are remembering the star after her untimely death on Sunday from breast cancer.

Cameron Crowe, who directed the 1996 film which starred Tom Cruise, Renée Zellweger and Preston, tells PEOPLE exclusively the actress "was one of the best-kept acting secrets in movies when we gave her the role in Jerry Maguire."

"It was her second act as an actor," the director, 63, said. "She had done lighter stuff with gusto, but it was clear she had much more to say and do in her career. She’d come close on some big parts, but we were lucky to get her when she was ready to fire on all cylinders … and that she did."

Preston portrayed Avery, the fiancée of Cruise's Jerry.

Cameron Crowe, Kelly Preston, Jerry O'Connell
Getty Images (3)

"The part was a former Olympic-level athlete turned NFL publicist.  She worked out relentlessly to prepare, learned about NFL publicity, and when she stepped on the set, she was easily as formidable a presence as Jerry Maguire," Crowe said. "The scene in which she dumps him, and literally beats him up, was like breathing air for her."

He continued, "Ditto all her other scenes.  She was ferocious and funny and was always ready to go again … and again.  She was also mighty poetic.  The scene where she and Jerry Maguire cross paths in the airport is one of my very favorites — check it out sometime to see how fully Kelly Preston inhabited Avery."

"Her silent moments are as good as the flashy stuff.  I’m just sorry that I hadn’t seen her recently because I wanted to tell how much I’ve started to hear from people who said, 'You know … I watched Jerry Maguire the other night, and I didn’t realize how much I wished there was a whole Avery Bishop movie …' She is missed."

Kelly Preston and Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire

O'Connell, who co-starred in the film as star quarterback Frank "Cush" Cushman, said, "We had a big rehearsal the first day of Jerry Maguire.  It was a pretty star-filled room.  I had A HUGE CRUSH on Kelly...  No joke, since Twins...  Like, IN LOVE. Meeting Kelly was maybe the biggest moment of my 21-year-old-life, at the time.  Kelly must have sensed my apprehension because she was SUPER KIND to me.  An angel!  Truly."

Preston died on Sunday after coping with breast cancer for two years, PEOPLE exclusively revealed through a statement from a family representative.

"Choosing to keep her fight private, she had been undergoing medical treatment for some time, supported by her closest family and friends," the family rep said. "She was a bright, beautiful and loving soul who cared deeply about others and who brought life to everything she touched. Her family asks for your understanding of their need for privacy at this time."

Preston is survived by her husband, John Travolta, 66, and their children: daughter Ella, 20, and 9-year-old son Benjamin. Son Jett died at age 16 in January 2009.