Christina Hendricks did not have much time to bask in the news of her first Emmy nomination before getting back to work at the show where she earned it.

The Emmy nominations were announced at 5:30 a.m. Pacific, and "I had to be at work at 6:30 this morning," the red-headed "Mad Men" co-star said in an interview last night, "so I was drawing a bath when I heard about the nomination."

She wasn't expecting the Emmy recognition three seasons into the show, particularly after a year when her character, the sexy and super-competent Joan Harris, was absent much of the time because she had quit Sterling Cooper because of her loser husband Greg.

"The material was amazing, but I wasn't there as much," she reasoned. "I thought that might affect how people might pick."

Emmys aside, she hadn't been worried about her lack of screen time, because "I had talked to (creator) Matt Weiner at the beginning of the season, and I knew he had a grand plan for Joan. Every time I got something it was fantastic, and so meaty. I knew there was a plan, but I know the audience sometimes would be, 'Ohmigod, have you left? Have you left?'"

Once nominated, actors submit a single episode for Emmy voters to view to make their choice. Hendricks hadn't yet thought of which she might choose, so I suggested either "My Old Kentucky Home" (Joan learns Greg isn't the rising star she thought she was marrying, and plays the accordion) or "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" (Joan tearfully leaves Sterling Cooper, then saves the day after a lawnmower accident).

"I do love the lawnmower episode," she said. "It's strange that you have to choose one episode, because we're telling the story over a certain amount of time."

"Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" climaxes with a rare chance for Hendricks to play an extended scene with "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm and no one else, and the chemistry between the actors - not so much about sex but about understanding and appreciating one another - was palpable.

"It was so amazing," she recalled. "I think that that episode was particularly hard. We had really really long hours and everyone was on set together. When those two characters are supposed to feel emotionally drained in that scene, I think we really all felt that way. We'd really been working so hard. He was such a great actor that it's so natural to fall into rhythms with him. I just love working with him."

As for the accordion scene in "Kentucky Home," that was Hendricks playing it herself. She had received an accordion as a gift five years ago, took some lessons, then put it away when she had a job in Canada that lasted a year. But when production called to ask if she played the piano or spoke French (the scene involved Joan singing Cole Porter's "C'est Magnifique" to dinner party guests while trying to conceal just how disappointing her life is), "I said I would learn French, and I play a bit of accordion." So they got her lessons to brush up, "And I faked the French."

Hendricks is more than comfortable acting, but when she had to step in front of the camera to play her sometime-instrument, "I was terrified. I was absolutely terrified. But we did preface it with the fact that Joan was rusty. We set it up that she was not a professional, so I didn't have to be perfect."

The fourth season of "Mad Men" debuts on July 25. (I offered some brief, unspoiled thoughts the other day, and we have some snazzy season four pictures to gawk at.) Weiner is very strict about what the cast is allowed to say about the show before it airs, so here's all Hendricks was comfortable saying about what the new season will bring for Joan, now that she's returned to be the office manager and backbone of the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency:

"There's a consistency to Joan that I think people respond to. What I really love about her character is that she really keeps things together, and no matter what's thrown at her, she holds her head up high. I think we can expect more of that. We all watched the first episode together as a cast and crew last week, and it got us excited."

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com